17 March 2010

Climate Change Needs Persuasive Art, Not Propaganda

Reposted in full from The Ecologist, 16 March 2010

'What is art's role in raising awareness of climate change? In this extract from her passionate, poetic essay 'The Far-seers of Art', Jay Griffiths explains why culture without nature is as good as worthless

Art's job is not propaganda. Propaganda aims for the cliché and, in attempting to speak to everyone, speaks in fact to no one. Art takes an idiosyncratic line; the more surely envoiced the artist becomes, the stronger the response to their work.

You can see agit-prop coming a mile away, barging along the street towards you, giving you time to turn the other way or shake it warmly by the hand. Art can steal up more quietly, coming alongside, maybe with a scent of jasmine or rum, speaking intrigue.

The issue of climate change needs persuasion rather than propaganda and art understands the psychology of persuasion. It is hard to allow oneself to be drawn by overt dogma, which is delivered in the daylight areas of the mind.

Art works in the shuttered twilights where darkness bestows a tenderness and protection, a secret place where the psyche feels safe enough to alter. It is always easier to change one's mind in the dark.

The Edge vs the Limit

Artists know their place is the edge, fertile, enigmatic, tricksterish. And the edge is not the same as a limit. A limit is the place of absolute finiteness or of wise cessation; the limits of natural law or, in terms of climate change, the necessary and just limiting of emissions. An edge, by contrast, is a place of maximum tension, a place of paradox, creative by its own geometry; a place of apparent contradictions which art explores and transcends.

The distinction between the Edge and the Limit can be related to the distinction between Freedom and Licence. Claiming they are acting in the name of 'freedom', modern states, allowing uncurbed carbon emissions, actually promote licence, the licence for individuals to use more than their carbon quota, the licence of industries to provoke climate change, the licence of wealthy nations to take more than their fair share, the licence of corporations to bully governments and lie to the media.

More licence is not needed. But more freedom is. The freedom which art knows, the freedom which results in a transcendence of vision and a change of heart.

Artistic Disobedience

It is, of course, notoriously hard to tell artists what to do. I know, as a writer, the fiendishly disobedient streak which my art demands: I can't even tell myself what to do. For artists with a sense of responsibility, a sense of politics, it can be very hard to demand of themselves that they create a work 'about' an 'issue'. While the political part of oneself is outlining the imperative, the creative aspect of oneself is untameable, off the leash, gainsaying.

Yet work on climate change is perhaps produced so readily because we, as human beings, are coming to dwell with the knowledge of it, coming to know it in our bones.

Compared to any other issue, climate change has a seismic and ineluctable enormity, and we inhabit this knowledge because we must. One thing it will cause is a change of climate within.

This isn't a verbal sleight of hand, it isn't a gently punning metaphor, it is a description written right at the edge of the future fact. We need a change in the climate of art. The situation which we face as humans demands to be matched at every level; philosophical, political, pragmatic and personal.

A Culture of Nature?

The role of art institutions is now truly cultural; to create the culture which nurtures nature, not only human nature but all forms of nature. This is neither a hobby nor a luxury. It is not a Status-Impact Event. It is an exigency which affects everything, from the blunt demand for emissions-reductions within institutions to the tenor of our language and the cast of our thought.

But there is a narrow strand of aesthetics which suggests that art should not stoop to this actual world of nature and environmental event, as if leaning towards this earthy world would undermine art's tantalising artifice or soil the spangly fascinator.

This sour cast of thought suggests that art should be 'above' moral issues, as if art should never dirty itself with matter, as if the artist should stand at one remove, should never treat as equals the cabinet members of the Maldives in suits and oxygen tanks, six metres underwater, holding their cabinet meeting amongst the fish in the turquoise seas, to demonstrate their nation's vulnerability to climate change.

According to that way of thinking, 'culture' is the opposite of 'nature', the rise of artifice has firmly defeated the pastoral, and art is in a position of enmity towards the real, natural world. But for most of human history, culture has been rooted in nature, as language tells. In its classical sense, culture was effectively the honouring of the cultivation of nature, from 'cultus' meaning cultivation, tending, care and respectful treatment.

Primal truth

We humans are part of nature. We are animal before we are human and our embodiment in the world is our primal truth. The sour strand in aesthetics dislikes this fact and hides it, making it a great Unsaid in the halls of art, insisting instead on art's superiority to nature, scorning the ineluctability of climate change by the self-deceit of exclusivity.

Humanity deserves better. Climate change demands more, requires looking beyond the narrow confines of space and time.

The culture of high culture has to shift, has to stoop to the floodwater and dare to touch the earth itself. The unexamined prejudice against nature within aesthetics will come to seem as vacuous and cruel as racism or sexism for, despite the pretence that culture is antagonistic to nature, it never really has been. If you watch carefully, you'll catch them glancing at each other, a look of shy recognition of a relationship never truly sundered.

Take the Forest of Arden out of Shakespeare, shake the linnet from the leaf, snatch the moon from Neruda, silence the Rite of Spring, take, in other words, all nature out of culture, and what do you have left? A few shoddy catalogues and a tax return.

Earthy roots

So, yes, we need a change in this kind of climate, which involves culture going not 'back' to its roots but 'down' to its roots, profound in the deep earth, in the root of the word cultus: nurturing care and respect, and offering truths to humanity.

In its evidence and reliable data, science offers its truths, but from art we need truths of a different order: Protean, yes, unpredictable, yes, disobedient, yes, but truths nonetheless; metaphoric, spiral truths, because we are not wholly rational creatures. It is not knowledge that we lack but parables to embody it and ethics to sustain the implementation of that knowledge.

It is through stooping that art conquers, Lear on the heath, finding his common humanity on the common ground. This is the profound task of art, to find seeds of transcendence deep in the dark and minding earth.'

16 March 2010

Post Growth Scribings

Many of you will be aware that I am contributing to a collaborative blog called 'Post Growth: The End of Bigger. The Start of Better', which was launched December 2009.

I've been meaning to cross-reference the posts I have contributed there with cruxcatalyst, so here are a selected few:
Please also check out the great work of my blog colleagues Joshua Nelson and Scott Gast!

Australian Cities Must Transform For Population Growth

Assumes: our cities need to keep growing. Why? To what end? Is this a goal we wish to pursue if it is going to cause conflict as available space and access to resources and amenities shrinks?

At the height of its powers, Rome had a population of just one million people!

Reposted in full from Planet Ark News, 16 March 2010

'Australia circa 2050, population 35 million, climate change induced rising sea levels have flooded the Gold Coast resort region, apartment blocks are now used to grow food and people commute in monorail pods above the sea.

In another city, Australians live on floating island pods with apartments both below and above sea level, the population has shifted from land to the sea because of the sky-rocketing value of disappearing arable land.

Climate change has also forced many Australians to move inland and create new cities in the outback, relying on solar power to exist in the inhospitable interior.

These are just a few urban scenarios by some of Australia's leading architects shortlisted for "Ideas for Australian Cities 2050+" to be staged at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale.

While these images may sound like science fiction, many architects and demographers say Australian cities must radically transform to cope with the pressures of population growth and climate change or face social unrest and urban decay.

"If we don't get this right ... all hell breaks loose, or our cities break down, there's not enough water, there's not enough power," said one of Australia's leading demographers Bernard Salt.

Australia survived the global financial crisis, due largely to China buying its resources, and while resource exports will continue to bolster its economy for decades, future prosperity may be threatened by a growing, aging population, according to an Australian government report released in February.

The report said Australia's population was set to rise by 60 percent to 35 million by 2050, mainly through migration, yet cities are already groaning under the present population.

"One of the major frontier issues for Australia over the next decade will be the future of our cities," said Heather Ridout, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, which is calling for major infrastructure investment in cities.

Among the beneficiaries of such development would be property firms like Lend Lease, Stockland and Mirvac Group, building material groups Boral Ltd and CSR, Australia's top engineering contractor Leighton Holding Ltd, and the country's biggest private hospital operator, Ramsay Health.

But demographers warn that Australian cities need to not only expand infrastructure, but ensure future residents have equal access to city facilities.

Racial riots at Sydney's Cronulla beach in 2005 and a series of attacks against Indian students in the past year are signs of growing social tensions in Australian cities, say demographers.

"If we have a rising population, we need to make sure that we have appropriate infrastructure, so that we don't lose the social cohesion that we take for granted," said Larissa Brown from the Center for Sustainable Leadership. "We need affordable access to housing, to transport, to healthcare."

While Australia is double the size of Europe, three-quarters of the country is sparsely populated countryside or harsh outback, leaving the bulk of the population to inhabit a thin strip down the southeast coast. In fact, around 50 percent of the population live in the three largest cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane - on a combined land area that is about the size of Brunei or Trinidad & Tobago.'

15 March 2010

Our World Balances On A Sea Of Debt

...if you read nothing else I post, read THIS, and tell friends about it!

It is essential that people understand this, or it will never change! And watch The Money Fix! Claims on ALL of our time, well being and existence [and our environment] are made through this medium of money, it totally dictates our life choices, and no one understands the absolutely bogus nature of it all! Not enough money for hospitals, public housing, disability and mental health care? To provide primary health care and water for developing nations? Rot! Ask yourself, where did they magick up the billions to bail out GFC creators?!

Interesting comment on this article:

'Debt is merely the most efficient means of non-violent social control. Once people wake up and realize that their debts are a fiction and refuse to service them, the state will respond with violence instead. The debt based monetary system is only sustained by the illusion that the debt is real. It isn't. Banks do not lend you money. It's just a book keeping entry. The entire system is a gigantic fraud.' - 21 February 2010

Reposted in full from the Sunday Telegraph, 21 February 2010

'What is needed is a root and branch re-evaluation of that most curious of cultural inventions – money, argues Darius Guppy.

In the year 1994 there resided in the cell next to mine a certain ‘Tommy.’

Now Tommy had been imprisoned for counterfeiting Dutch Guilders to such a high standard that he had fooled the banks themselves. As was customary among prisoners who became friends, Tommy allowed me to read his legal papers and I quickly became fascinated by the Judge’s sentencing speech, the gist of which was that Tommy’s activities had been parasitical. By creating money out of little more than thin air he had reduced the purchasing power of more deserving members of society. What would happen if everyone behaved like him?

Immediately I thought of arguments used, in a different context, by Thatcherites and neo-liberals in general regarding inflation. Inflation, just like counterfeiting, dilutes the value of the community’s hard-earned wealth and as such constitutes a terrible social evil. Creating too much money - ‘real’, just as much as ‘fake’ - can wreck an economy. Such indeed was the reasoning of the Nazis when, during World War Two they came up with a plan – that came close to implementation - to ruin Britain’s economy by flooding the country with near perfect counterfeit bills. A lot of nonsense has been written and said about the world’s current economic woes - how the crash is the fault solely of the banks and how, by implication, Governments are blameless and in particular how it could all have been avoided and will indeed be made right by greater financial regulation, and so on. All of which constitutes a classic example of what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre terms “the fallacy of managerial expertise”: an attempt by ‘experts’ to blind us with science in order to justify their own over-paid existences and mask their confusion. After all, if they had been so skilled, then why is it that not one of them - either politician or finance minister or financial journalist or just plain financier - was able to predict the current debacle?

These ‘experts’ will tell you that the present difficulties are simply the result of abuses and excesses in a system that is basically sound. In short, all that is required is for some faults to be corrected. But do not believe them. For the reality is that the problem is systemic and a little tinkering here or there will achieve nothing in the long term.

In fact, what is needed is a root and branch re-evaluation of that most curious of cultural inventions – money – how it is created, how it circulates within an economy and how it can best be used to serve the interests of the community itself.

To begin then, the experts owe it to the people to explain to them in the simplest terms how it is that money actually works.

Such is the task I propose to undertake in this essay and for this it seems to me that the layman must grasp two fundamental concepts above all others:

First, that the confusion should not be made between ‘legal tender’ and ‘money’ as a whole. In particular, were one to ask the man on the street - indeed were one to ask most politicians and even most bankers - who it is that actually creates the money which rules our lives they would no doubt reply “the State.”

And in this they would be wrong.

For while it is true that Governments create legal tender – which is to say the physical notes and coins that circulate in an economy – that legal tender represents, at its absolute highest, only 3 per cent of the total money in circulation in the global economy. It is in fact the commercial banks, largely unaccountable and privately owned, that create the world’s money in the manner I will describe below.

Indeed, even were Tommy responsible for printing every single note in circulation throughout the world his power to dilute the rest of our wealth would amount to only a tiny fraction of that of the real manufacturers of money - which leads us to the second most fundamental point of all - that the activities of my friend Tommy and the activities of the bankers are in essence identical: the creation of money – which is to say claims on the rest of us - out of nothing.

Without knowing it, therefore, Tommy’s judge punished him for usurping not so much the role of the State as the role of the banks.

More to the point, the very same mistake – namely the mis-identification of where money truly originates - has been made by virtually all our politicians, economists and financial commentators.

Consider the absurd contradiction at the heart of neo-liberal, Monetarist, Thatcherite economics which has constituted the Western orthodoxy for the past few decades: to emphasise on the one hand that the money supply should be brought under control whilst simultaneously allowing banking – where the money is actually manufactured – to run riot!

To grasp how the global fraud works we will need to step back in time and imagine ourselves next to the original goldsmith-banker.

Now our goldsmith-banker has a vault in his business premises and in this vault ten of his customers each deposits a bar of gold weighing 1 kilogram - for safekeeping and in the hope of a return for lending our banker their gold and thereby depriving themselves of the benefits they would enjoy had they elected to spend their wealth now.

Classical economic theory would have it that our banker fulfils a useful social function – namely bringing together those who have a surplus of money with those who have a deficit but who, despite this, nevertheless have the energy, work ethic and vision to make a profit for all concerned out of this union. In short, our banker lends the ten gold bars in his vault to certain of his other customers who in turn use this wealth to embark on profitable ventures, ventures that generate a surplus by the end of year one. Happily, the vault now contains eleven gold bars out of which our banker can pay his depositors and himself a reasonable return.

This process, which for obvious reasons depends first and foremost upon economic ‘growth’, continues apace and is refined, at least to begin with, in ways that appear eminently logical. In particular, our banker soon questions the wisdom of keeping all the gold bars in his vault where security is a concern. Likewise, the procedure of having to descend to the vault and withdraw the gold bars and transport them to different parts of the country and carve them up into smaller units becomes too burdensome. The picture is further complicated when one appreciates that by now thousands of banks have sprung up all over the place and have begun to lend to each other.

At this point therefore he comes up with an idea – to create a token, a token in itself valueless, such as a piece of paper, that will represent a given quantity of the gold either in his own vault or held to his account at some giant, more secure vault – a precursor to Fort Knox if you like. Such a token can then be circulated and exchanged within the economy in a manner that is relatively hassle-free. Historians credit one of the first examples of such an instrument – the cheque – to the Knights Templar. In this way, a pilgrim could encash a cheque drawn on a European preceptory at a Templar branch in the Holy Land.

So far so good. And good it remains just so long as for the face value of each of the pieces of paper in circulation there exists a corresponding amount of gold sitting in a vault somewhere that can be accessed in the real world.

At this juncture therefore the virtual and real economies are able to advance pretty much in lock-step.

However, it is at this precise point that something truly wondrous and truly diabolical occurs.

For our banker and his banker friends make an imaginative leap. Experience has taught them that the bearers of the pieces of paper which they have created rarely attempt to claim the gold their paper – or their ‘money’ - represents en masse.

Our banker reasons thus: “just so long as the pieces of paper that my friends and I have put into circulation are not encashed simultaneously then it is largely academic how many such pieces we create. If, for example, we have 1 kilogram of gold in our vaults and we issue ten pieces of paper to ten different clients each with a face value equivalent to that 1 kilogram, then so long as two people do not come to the bank on the same day demanding their gold we will be able to keep out of trouble.

Clearly, the most crucial part of our scheme is to create a culture of confidence. The bearers of our pieces of paper must feel secure about our ability to convert their paper back into their gold, or real wealth. Best therefore to give names to our institutions such as ‘prudential’, ‘guarantee’, ‘trust’, ‘security’, ‘fidelity’ and so on.”

The reader will appreciate the beauty of the scheme: for now, instead of earning interest on a single piece of paper our banker can earn interest on ten such pieces of paper! Moreover, whilst charging interest on these ten pieces of paper, he has only to pay out a reduced rate of interest on the single gold bar that has been deposited with him!

And, incredibly, this is indeed exactly what happens.

Currently the average fractional reserve requirements for banks amount to under 10% which means that for every dollar (or equivalent) the banks have on deposit they can lend out at least ten such dollars – virtual dollars which they summon from nowhere – and on which they charge interest.

Just as incredibly, this fact – the key to understanding how the international financial system actually operates and why the world is in such a mess – is discussed virtually nowhere in mainstream circles: not in The Financial Times, not in The Economist, not in the broadsheets, not in Parliament, not in the City and not in the economics departments of most Universities.

Either the process is unknown in these circles therefore - a sign of mediocrity - or it is indeed understood but kept deliberately quiet - a sign of wickedness.

Let me repeat: supposedly ‘sovereign’ Governments – representative of their people, at least in theory – do not control the single most important mechanism when it comes to their economies: namely the production and distribution of money. That role has been diverted in large measure to the banks which manufacture money out of nothing and charge interest on that conjured-up money. In fact, beyond a pathetic interest rate cut here and a token cut in VAT rates there our politicians have zero real power when it comes to directing their country’s economy.

Only in a world of lies and illusions, a world in which actors become our leaders and our heroes, could such sorcery be possible.

The picture has of course become a great deal more complicated. Soon pieces of paper are no longer required and instead entries on a bank’s ledger will suffice. Eventually, a further layer of virtuality is added when computers emerge and with them credits in cyberspace. Likewise all sorts of financial instruments and ‘products’ are devised by the experts – Collateralised Mortgage Obligations, Put and Call Options, Floating Rate Notes, Preference Shares, Convertible Bonds, Semi-Convertible Bonds and endless other ‘derivatives’ – but in essence these additions constitute mere variations of the same basic Three Card Trick.

Moreover, the illusion becomes self-reinforcing. Those involved in the process, sitting behind their computer screens, shuttled from one air-conditioned capsule to another, stressed by the pressure and the volatility of the hallucinogenic nightmare they inhabit, yet sheltered from the tactile realities of the outside world, no longer control the beast they have created. How far removed from the days when wheat landed on the docks and merchants met in coffee houses and bazaars to haggle over things they could feel.

Now it may be argued that while it is true that money is manufactured in the manner I have just described – in other words by creating loans to the banks’ clients – surely just as much money is destroyed every time a loan is repaid? This is true to an extent. However, the point to be grasped is that while money is indeed created and destroyed in vast amounts every second of the day, the interest on that money remains un-destroyed and accumulates within the system – and at a compounded rate, moreover.

The reader will appreciate the problem and how it is that the process described is far more inflationary and far more parasitical than the activities of all the Tommys in the world put together. For while that money, which by now has mutated into a vast mutual-indebtedness monster, grows exponentially, the wealth it is supposed to represent cannot grow at the same pace for very long. In short, while there is no limit to the number of zeros we can create on a computer – zeros which represent claims on us and on what we own - there is a very real limit to the amount of oil in the ground, the amount of wheat in the fields and the amount of livestock in our farms.

Granted, the discovery of a continent here, a technological invention there and an increase in efficiency somewhere else can accommodate the growth in the real economy that is required to keep pace with the growth in the virtual one, but only to a point – which is of course precisely why the economic explosion begins with the discovery and opening up of just such continents from the early 16th Century on and is reinforced with the advent of the industrial revolution. Capitalism, banking and growth become inseparable, but in a world bounded by the real, logic dictates that the virtual economy must eventually peel away from the real one and sooner or later the day of reckoning arrives - when the gulf that separates these two economies is too large to be sustained - for no power on earth can match the power of compound interest in the ether.

Consider the well-known tale of the Chinese Emperor and his opponent at a game of chess to whom the Emperor asks what reward would satisfy him in the event his victory. The opponent, his subject, replies that a single grain of wheat, doubled for each of the 64 squares on the chess board, would suffice. The Emperor, imagining that he has a good deal, plays on and loses, only to learn that he now owes his adversary the equivalent of 2000 times the current annual worldwide production of wheat.

Such are the miracles of compound growth. Such too is the reason why financiers have been able to award themselves increasingly astronomical sums. For their virtual printing presses are calibrated to an exponential production while no such calibration applies to Mother Earth.

It was the 1921 winner of a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and not for Economics, Frederick Soddy, who was among the first to articulate the mechanism by which money is created by the banks and how it mutates into debt in the ways I have described and his arguments have been developed over the years by thinkers such as Herman Daly and Richard Douthwaite.

In fact, the reasoning can be extended to cover not only bankers but the financial sector as a whole. A company makes a certain profit; a multiple of many times can be applied to that figure to arrive at a ‘value’ for that company (the price-earnings ratio) – based, as ever, on the assumption of future growth. That value can then be leveraged yet further for it to raise debt against its share price and so on and so forth. Taken to ever more ethereal extremes, such super-ovulation can mean that a single company with nothing more than an idea to be applied to the internet and a turnover less than your average Fish ‘n Chips can create yet more tokens – share certificates - worth several times the entire annual production of diamonds for the continent of Africa, a process known, retrospectively, as the dotcom bubble.

There are a couple of features which should be immediately apparent.

First, such a system constitutes in effect a redistribution mechanism from the poor to the rich which is of course precisely why the banks and Western Governments are so desperate to ensure its survival and the hegemony which results from it.

Money breeds more money and develops a quality akin to matter – the larger the agglomerations, the greater their gravitational pull or, as the Bible puts it: “unto he that hath shall be rendered and from he that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath.”

Indeed, contrary to what they may tell you, the banks never really want their loans to be repaid at all. Just so long as the interest is funded it is in fact to their benefit for the capital to remain outstanding on their books as ‘assets’ and for the debts to be rolled over. Every time the IMF or World Bank extends a line of credit to some impoverished nation, are they being ‘charitable’ therefore or are they simply perpetuating the enslavement?

Second, such a system relies entirely, as do all Ponzi schemes, on the assumption of continued growth, hence its inherent instability. Once that growth is threatened the edifice collapses. Householders in Britain today will appreciate such a phenomenon – the result of ‘leverage’ - only too well: put up 10 per cent for a property and borrow the rest from the bank. That property’s value need rise by only 10 per cent and you have doubled your equity. But on the flip side that value need fall by only 10 percent and you are wiped out.

Which in turn explains precisely why a contraction of a mere 2 or 3 percent in the global economy leads not to a correspondingly minute fall on international stock markets, but to financial Armageddon.

Likewise with the banks – lend ten times more money than you possess and when the economy grows – or at least pretends to grow – Porsches galore, but when the lack of growth is exposed it requires only 11% of the loans on your books (in value terms) to be bad and you are bust. The truth is not that these institutions have suddenly become insolvent therefore, but that they were never really solvent in the first place since the assumptions on which they were founded could not apply in the real world. Simple false-accounting has meant that by rolling over their debts they have been able to keep them on their books as ‘assets’ rather than losses and forestall the evil hour.

There is an overarching name for the process I have outlined – ‘usury’ - and our predecessors from the Ancient and Medieval worlds appear to have appreciated much better than us its ultimate destination: ruin.

In sum, I have argued that both the analyses of the current economic crisis and the sticky-plaster remedies advanced by politicians, financial journalists and the financial industry itself to counter that crisis are woefully inadequate because they fail to grasp what is in fact a simple and devastatingly effective swindle, a swindle largely invisible because it has become so deeply embedded in our culture.

The consequences of that swindle, in particular the desperate need for economic growth, the consumption, wastage, and the environmental and cultural despoliation which it engenders, together with some possible antidotes worthy of consideration, must be dealt with separately.

In the interim, suffice to say that some original and radical thinking, the type of thinking one encounters nowhere in any of the political parties, will be required. Readers of the Telegraph in particular should take note - a degree in PPE or History and a few A-Levels in the Bleedin’ Obvious will not make the problems go away.'

Turning the Corner on Growth

Reposted in full from The Solutions Journal, 31 January 2010

'Everyone agrees: our economy is sick. The inescapable symptoms include declines in consumer spending and consumer confidence, together with a contraction of international trade and available credit. Add a collapse in real estate values and carnage in the automotive and airline industries, and the picture looks grim indeed.

But why are both the US economy and the larger global economy ailing? Among the mainstream media, world leaders, and America’s economists-in-chief (Treasury Secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke), there is near-unanimity of opinion: these recent troubles are primarily due to a combination of bad real estate loans and poor regulation of financial derivatives.

This is the conventional diagnosis. If it is correct, then the treatment for our economic malady would logically include heavy doses of bailout money for beleaguered financial institutions, mortgage lenders, and car companies, better regulation of derivatives and futures markets, and stimulus programs to jumpstart consumer spending.

But what if this diagnosis is fundamentally flawed? The metaphor needs no belaboring; we all know that tragedy can result from a doctor’s misreading of symptoms, mistaking one disease for another.

A case can be made that dire events having to do with the real estate market, the derivatives markets, and the auto and airline industries are themselves mere symptoms of an even deeper, systemic dysfunction that spells the end of economic growth as we have known it.

For several years, a swelling subculture of commentators has been forecasting a financial crash, basing this prognosis on the assessment that global oil production was about to peak. The reasoning went like this: continual increases in population and consumption cannot continue forever on a finite planet. This is an axiomatic observation with which anyone familiar with the mathematics of compounded arithmetic growth must agree, even if they hedge their agreement with vague references to “substitutability” and “demographic transitions.”

This axiomatic limit to growth means that the rapid expansion in both population and per-capita consumption of resources that has occurred over the past century or two must cease at some particular time. But when is this likely to occur?

Energy is the ultimate enabler of growth (again, this is axiomatic: physics and biology both tell us that without energy nothing happens). Industrial expansion throughout the past two centuries has in every instance been based on increased energy consumption. More specifically, industrialism has been inextricably tied to the availability and consumption of cheap energy from coal and oil (and more recently, natural gas). However, fossil fuels are by their very nature depleting, non-renewable resources. Further, burning these fuels releases climate-changing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, setting up conditions for droughts, famines, and the drowning of coastal cities. None of these events is compatible with continued, easy economic growth.

Thus, either climate catastrophe or the eventual inability to continue increasing supplies of cheap fossil energy will likely lead to a cessation of economic growth, unless alternative energy sources and efficiency of energy use can be deployed rapidly and to a sufficient degree.
Of the three conventional fossil fuels, oil is arguably the most economically vital, since it supplies nearly all transport energy. Further, it is the fuel that is likely to encounter supply problems soonest because global petroleum discoveries have been declining for decades, and most oil producing countries are already seeing production declines.

During the period from 2005 to mid-2008, demand for oil was growing, especially in China (which went from being self-sufficient in oil in 1995 to being the world’s second-foremost importer after the U.S. by 2006). But the global supply of oil was essentially stagnant: from month to month, production figures for crude oil bounced around within a fairly narrow band between 72 and 75 million barrels per day. As prices rose, production figures barely budged in response. There was every indication that all oil producers were pumping flat-out: even the Saudis appeared to be rushing to capitalize on the price bonanza.

Today, oil prices are only half what they were in July 2008. Why has the economy not quickly recovered? Clearly, peak oil is not the only cause of the current economic crisis. Enormous bubbles in the real estate and finance sectors constituted accidents waiting to happen, and the implosion of those bubbles has created a serious credit crisis (as well as solvency and looming currency crises) that will take several years to resolve, even if energy supplies are not a problem.

But now the potential for renewed high oil prices acts as a ceiling for economic recovery. Whenever the economy does appear to show renewed signs of life (as has happened in May-July this year, with stock values rebounding and the general pace of economic contraction slowing somewhat), oil prices will take off again as oil speculators anticipate a recovery of demand. Indeed, oil prices rebounded from $30 in January to nearly $70 in early August, provoking widespread concern that high-energy prices could nip recovery in the bud.

The problem extends beyond oil and other fossil fuels, and even beyond climate change: the world’s fresh water resources are strained to the point that billions of people may soon find themselves with only precarious access to water for drinking and irrigation. Biodiversity is declining rapidly. We are losing 24 billion tons of topsoil each year to erosion. And many economically significant minerals—from antimony to zinc—are depleting quickly, requiring the mining of ever lower-grade ores in ever more remote locations. Thus the peak oil crisis is really just the leading edge of a broader Peak Everything dilemma.

In essence, humanity faces an entirely predictable peril: our population has been growing dramatically for the past 200 years (expanding from under one billion to nearly seven billion), while our per-capita consumption of resources has also grown. For a species, this is virtually the definition of biological success. And yet all of this has taken place in the context of a finite planet with fixed stores of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), a limited ability to regenerate renewable resources (forests, fish, fresh water, and topsoil), and a limited ability to absorb industrial waste products, including carbon dioxide. If we step back and look at the industrial period from a broad historical perspective that is informed by an appreciation of ecological limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are today living at the end of a relatively brief pulse—a 200-year rapid expansionary phase enabled by a temporary energy subsidy (in the form of cheap fossil fuels) that will inevitably be followed by an even more rapid and dramatic contraction as those fuels deplete.

The winding down of this historic growth-contraction pulse doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, but it does mean the end of a certain kind of economy. One way or another, humanity must return to a more normal pattern of existence characterized by reliance on immediate solar income (via crops, wind, or the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity) rather than stored ancient sunlight.

This is not to say that the remainder of the 21st century must consist of a collapse of industrialism, a die-off of most of the human population, and a return by the survivors to a way of life identical to that of 16th century peasants or indigenous hunter-gatherers. It is possible instead to imagine various acceptable and even inviting ways in which humanity could adapt to ecological limits while further developing cultural richness, scientific understanding, and quality of life (more on this below).

But however it is negotiated, the transition will spell an end to economic growth in the conventional sense. And that transition appears to have begun.

If the physical scientists who warn about limits to growth are right, confronting the global economic meltdown implies far more than merely getting the banks and mortgage lenders back on their feet. Indeed, we face a fundamental change in our economy as significant as the advent of the industrial revolution. We are at a historic inflection point—the ending of decades of expansion and the beginning of an inevitable period of contraction that will continue until humanity is once again living within the limits of Earth’s regenerative systems.

A case can be made that after all this is done, the end result will be a more satisfying way of life for the vast majority of citizens—offering more of a sense of community, more intergenerational solidarity, more of a connection with the natural world, more satisfying work, and a healthier environment. Indeed, it is essential at a challenging time like this to emphasize solutions and benefits rather than dwelling only on the enormity of the crisis confronting us. But those in charge need to understand that looking on the bright side doesn’t mean promising what can’t be delivered—such as a return to the days of growth and thoughtless consumption.

We have entered a new economic era in which the former “rules” no longer apply. Low interest rates and government spending no longer translate to incentives for borrowing and job production. Cheap energy won’t appear just because there is demand for it. Substitutes for essential resources will in most cases not be found. Over all, the economy will continue to shrink in fits and starts until it can be maintained by the energy and material resources that Earth can supply on an ongoing basis.

Is it too late to begin a managed transition to a post-fossil fuel society? Perhaps. But we will not know unless we try. And if we are to make that effort, we must begin by acknowledging one simple, stark reality: growth as we have known it can no longer be our goal.'

Pentagon to Rank Global Warming as Destabilising Force

...so its not just those darn tree-huggers trying to dupe us after all...

Excerpt from The Guardian, 31 January 2010

'The Pentagon will for the first time rank global warming as a destabilising force, adding fuel to conflict and putting US troops at risk around the world, in a major strategy review to be presented to Congress tomorrow. The quadrennial defence review, prepared by the Pentagon to update Congress on its security vision, will direct military planners to keep track of the latest climate science, and to factor global warming into their long term strategic planning.

"While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world," said a draft of the review seen by the Guardian.

Heatwaves and freak storms could put increasing demand on the US military to respond to humanitarian crises or natural disaster. But troops could feel the effects of climate change even more directly, the draft says.

More than 30 US bases are threatened by rising sea levels. It ordered the Pentagon to review the risks posed to installations, and to combat troops by a potential increase in severe heatwaves and fires.

The review's release coincides with a sharpening focus in the American defence establishment about global warming – even though polls last week showed the public increasingly less concerned.

The CIA late last year established a centre to collect intelligence on climate change. Earlier this month, CIA officials sent emails to environmental experts in Washington seeking their views on climate change impacts around the world, and how the agency could keep tabs on what actions countries were taking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The CIA has also restarted a programme – scrapped by George Bush – that allowed scientists and spies to share satellite images of glaciers and Arctic sea ice.

That suggests climate change is here to stay as a topic of concern for the Pentagon.

The Pentagon, in acknowledging the threat of global warming, will now have to factor climate change into war game exercises and long-term security assessments of badly affected regions such as the Arctic, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia...

"The leadership of the Pentagon has very strongly indicated that they do consider climate change to be a national security issue," said Christine Parthemore, an analyst at the Centre for a New American Security, who has been studying the Pentagon's evolving views on climate change. "They are considering climate change on a par with the political and economic factors as the key drivers that are shaping the world."

Awareness of climate change and its impact on threat levels and military capability had been slowly percolating through the ranks since 2008 when then Senators Hillary Clinton and John Warner pushed the Pentagon to look specifically at the impact of global warming in its next long-term review.

But the navy was already alive to the potential threat, with melting sea ice in the Arctic opening up a new security province. The changing chemistry of the oceans, because of global warming, is also playing havoc with submarine sonar, a report last year from the CNAS warned.

US soldiers and marines, meanwhile, were getting a hard lesson in the dangers of energy insecurity on the battlefield, where attacks on supply convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq inflicted heavy casualties.

"Our dependence on fuel adds significant cost and puts US soldiers and contractors at risk," said Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defence for the environment. "Energy can be a matter of life and death and we have seen dramatically in Iraq and Afghanistan the cost of heavy reliance on fossil fuels."

She told a conference call on Friday the Pentagon would seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions from non-combat operations by 34% from 2008 levels by 2020, in line with similar cuts by the rest of the federal government...

But not all defence department officials have got on board, and Parthemore said she believes it could take some time to truly change the military mindset.

Parthemore writes of an exchange on a department of defence list-serv in December 2008 about whether global warming exists. It ends with one official writing: "This is increasingly shrill and pedantic. Moreover, it's becoming boring."'

Ecuador Addresses its Ecological Balance Sheet

Reposted in full from Global Footprint Network newsletter, 1 March 2010

'Ecuador has become the first country to set a concrete Ecological Footprint target. The country has included the goal in its National Plan that, by 2013, its Ecological Footprint will be within its biocapacity, a trend that it will maintained going forward.

“Ecuador wants to be a leading country [in] officially using the Ecological Footprint as a resource accounting tool for policy and decision-making,” Ecuador Environment Advisor Dania Quirola Suárez said in a roundtable side-event with Global Footprint Network at the Copenhagen climate talks.

In the past five decades, Ecuador has seen a vast ecological surplus evaporate. In 1961, the country had biocapacity more than four times greater than its Ecological Footprint; today, however, its Ecological Footprint is very close to its biocapacity and would quickly surpass it if current trends continued. While the average Ecological Footprint per person has remained relatively constant, the amount of biocapacity per person has declined as population has grown—a trend a recent educational video likened to a household that must share a fixed budget among a growing number of family members.

The government’s Ecological Footprint goal is aimed at ensuring that Ecuador does not move into overshoot. The country also has a Presidential mandate to develop physical indicators that can better track environmental performance and support decision making. Planning officials are seeking not only to use Ecological Footprint data in their own decision-making but to contribute research and expertise that will enable policy-makers elsewhere to follow suit.

“This step shows that Ecuador’s leaders understand the true value of their country’s natural wealth and its importance in providing a high quality of life for its citizens,” said Jennifer Mitchell, Global Footprint Network Director of Strategic Initiatives, who has worked closely with Ecuador in developing its goal. “They recognize that ultimately, managing biocapacity will enable them to provide for their people’s long-term well-being much more effectively than simply liquidating those resources.”'

Lama Uses Footprint to Show Disharmony with Nature

Reposted in full from Global Footprint Network newsletter, 1 March 2010

'Counted among the many who use Global Footprint Network’s “wallet cards” as a teaching tool is Lama Gangchen Rinpoche, a teacher and healer in the Tibetan Tantric tradition. This past August, Global Footprint Network Senior Associate Steve Goldfinger visited Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and southwest China’s Yunnan Province with the Lama.

In 1992, Lama Gangchen founded the Lama Gangchen World Peace Foundation to promote world peace through cooperation in the humanitarian fields of health, education, the environment, spirituality and preservation of indigenous cultures. Lama Gangchen sees the global ecological crisis as a collective emotional imbalance which is reflected in the functioning of our environment, society, health and relationships. Embracing both modern science and ancient Tibetan traditions in his approach to solving this crisis, Lama Gangchen finds the Ecological Footprint and, in particular, the wallet cards to be an effective way of communicating the disharmony in humanity’s current relationship with the environment.'

Heinberg on Life Beyond Growth

Reposted in full from Transition Culture, 10 March 2010

'What if the economy doesn’t recover? (From Post Carbon Institute)

In 2008 the U.S. economy tripped down a steep, rocky slope. Employment levels plummeted; so did purchases of autos and other consumer goods. Property values crashed; foreclosure and bankruptcy rates bled. For states, counties, cities, and towns; for manufacturers, retailers, and middle- and low-income families, the consequences were—and continue to be—catastrophic. Other nations were soon caught up in the undertow.

In late 2009 and early 2010, the economy showed some signs of renewed vigor.

Understandably, everyone wants it to get “back to normal.” But here’s a disturbing thought: What if that is not possible? What if the goalposts have been moved, the rules rewritten, the game changed? What if the decades-long era of economic growth based on ever-increasing rates of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption is over, finished, and done? What if the economic conditions that all of us grew up expecting to continue practically forever were merely a blip on history’s timeline?

It’s an uncomfortable idea, but one that cannot be ignored: The “normal” late-20th century economy of seemingly endless growth actually emerged from an aberrant set of conditions that cannot be perpetuated.

That “normal” is gone. One way or another, a “new normal” will emerge to replace it. Can we build a different, more sustainable economy to replace the one now in tatters?

Let’s be clear: I believe we are in for some very hard times. The transitional period on our way toward a post-growth, equilibrium economy will prove to be the most challenging time any of us has ever lived through. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we can survive this collective journey, and that if we make sound choices as families and communities, life can actually be better for us in the decades ahead than it was during the heady days of seemingly endless economic expansion.

In this essay, I would like to share my conclusions on this subject and the process by which I arrived at them. It’s a bit of a long story, so please bear with me. First, the conclusions.

Four Propositions

The following summary statements are fundamental both to grasping our current situation and managing our way toward a desirable future:

We have reached the end of economic growth as we have known it. The “growth” we are talking about consists of the expansion of the overall size of the economy (with more people being served and more money changing hands) and of the quantities of energy and material goods flowing through it. The economic crisis that began in 2008 was both foreseeable and inevitable, and that it marks a permanent, fundamental break from past decades—a period in which economists adopted the unrealistic view that perpetual economic growth is necessary and also possible to achieve. As we will see, there are fundamental constraints to ongoing economic expansion, and the world is beginning to encounter those constraints. This is not to say the U.S. or the world will never see another quarter or year of growth relative to the previous year. Rather, the point is that when the bumps are averaged out, the general trend-line of the economy (measured in terms of production and consumption of real goods) will be level or downward rather than upward from now on.

The basic factors that will inevitably shape whatever replaces the growth economy are knowable. To survive and thrive for long, societies have to operate within the planet’s budget of sustainably extractable resources. This means that even if we don’t know exactly what a desirable post-growth economy and lifestyle will look like, we know enough to begin working toward them.

It is possible for economies to persist for centuries or millennia with no or minimal growth. That is how most economies operated until recent times. If billions of people through countless generations lived without economic growth, we can do so as well—now and far into the future. The end of growth does not mean the end of the world.

Life in a non-growing economy can be fulfilling, interesting, and secure. The absence of growth does not imply a lack of change or improvement. Within a non-growing or equilibrium economy there can still be a continuous development of practical skills, artistic expression, and technology. In fact, some historians and social scientists argue that life in an equilibrium economy can be superior to life in a fast-growing economy: while growth creates opportunities for some, it also typically intensifies competition—there are big winners and big losers, and (as in most boom towns) the quality of relations within the community can suffer as a result. Within a non-growing economy it is possible to maximize benefits and reduce factors leading to decay, but doing so will require pursuing appropriate goals: instead of more, we must strive for better; rather than promoting increased economic activity for its own sake, we must emphasize whatever increases quality of life without stoking consumption. One way to do this is to reinvent and redefine growth itself.

The transition to a no-growth economy (or one in which growth is defined in a fundamentally different way) is inevitable, but it will go much better if we plan for it rather than simply watching in dismay as institutions we have come to rely upon fail, and then try to improvise a survival strategy in their absence.

In effect, we have to create a desirable “new normal” that fits the constraints imposed by depleting natural resources. Maintaining the “old normal” is not an option; if we do not find new goals for ourselves and plan our transition from a growth-based economy to a healthy equilibrium economy, we will by default create a much less desirable “new normal” whose emergence we are already beginning to see in the forms of persistent high unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ever more frequent and worsening financial and environmental crises—all of which translate to profound distress for individuals, families, and communities.

‘Limits to Growth’ The journey that led to my formulating these propositions began in 1972, when a book called Limits to Growth was making headlines. This relatively compact volume, which went on to become the best-selling environmental book of all time, provoked the first Great Wake-up Call of my adult life, changing the course of everything I have thought and done ever since.

Let me explain why Limits to Growth impacted me so deeply.

That book, which reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population, was also the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

The idea was heretical at the time—and still is: during the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When the economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting ensues. And so predictably a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was prominently “debunked” by public relations efforts organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited. In fact, the original Limits to Growth scenarios have held up quite well*.

In principle, the argument for eventual limits to growth is a slam-dunk. If any quantity grows steadily by a certain fixed percentage per year, this implies that it will double in size every so-many years; the higher the percentage growth rate, the quicker the doubling. A rough method of figuring doubling times is known as the rule of 70: dividing the percentage growth rate into 70 gives the approximate time required for the initial quantity to double. If a quantity is growing at 1 percent per year, it will double in 70 years; at 2 percent per year growth, it will double in 35 years; at 5 percent growth, it will double in only 14 years, and so on. If you want to be more precise, you can use the Y^x button on your calculator, but the rule of 70 works fine for most purposes.

Here’s a real-world example: Over the past two centuries, human population has grown at rates ranging from less than one percent to more than two percent per year. In 1800, world population stood at about one billion; by 1930 it had doubled to two billion. Only 30 years later (in 1960) it had doubled again to four billion; currently we are on track to achieve a third doubling, to eight billion humans, around 2025. No one seriously expects human population to continue growing for centuries into the future. But imagine if it did—at just 1.3 percent per year (its growth rate in the year 2000). By the year 2780 there would be 148 trillion humans on Earth—one person for each square meter of land on the planet’s surface.

It won’t happen, of course.

In nature, growth always slams up against non-negotiable constraints sooner or later. If a species finds that its food source has expanded, its numbers will increase to take advantage of those surplus calories—but then its food source will become depleted as more mouths consume it, and its predators will likewise become more numerous (more tasty meals for them!). Population “blooms” (that is, periods of rapid growth) are always followed by crashes and die-offs. Always.

Here’s another real-world example. In recent years China’s economy has been growing at eight percent or more per year; that means it is more than doubling in size every ten years. Indeed, China consumes more than twice as much coal as it did a decade ago—the same with iron ore and oil. The nation now has four times as many highways as it did, and almost five times as many cars. How long can this go on? How many more doublings can occur before China has used up its key resources—or has simply decided that enough is enough and has stopped growing?

It makes sense that economies should follow rules analogous to those that govern biological systems. Plants and animals tend to grow quickly when they are young, but then they reach a more or less stable mature size. In organisms, growth rates are largely controlled by genes. In economies, growth seems tied to factors such as the availability of resources—chiefly energy resources (”food” for the industrial system). During the 20th century, cheap and abundant fossil fuels enabled rapid economic expansion; at some point, therefore, fossil fuel depletion could put a brake on growth. It is also possible that industrial wastes could accumulate to the point that the biological systems that underpin economic activity (such as forests, crops, and human bodies) begin to fail.

But economists generally don’t see things this way. That’s probably because most current economic theories were formulated during an anomalous historical period of sustained growth. Economists are merely generalizing from their experience: they can point to decades of steady growth in the recent past, and so they simply project that experience into the future. Moreover, they have ways to explain why modern market economies are immune to the kinds of limits that constrain natural systems; the two main ones concern substitution and efficiency.

If a useful resource becomes scarce, its price will rise, and this creates an incentive for users of the resource to find a substitute. For example, if oil gets expensive enough, energy companies might start making liquid fuels from coal. Or they might develop other energy sources undreamed of today. Economists theorize that this process of substitution can go on forever. It’s part of the magic of the free market.

Increasing efficiency means doing more with less. In the U.S., the number of inflation-adjusted dollars generated in the economy for every unit of energy consumed has increased steadily over recent decades (the amount of energy, in British Thermal Units, required to produce a dollar of GDP has been dropping steadily, from close to 20,000 BTU per dollar in 1949 to 8,500 BTU in 2008). That’s one kind of economic efficiency. Another has to do with locating the cheapest sources of materials, and the places where workers will be most productive and work for the lowest wages. As we increase efficiency, we use less—of either resources or money—to do more. That enables more growth.

Finding substitutes for depleting resources and upping efficiency are undeniably effective adaptive strategies of market economies. Nevertheless, the question remains open as to how long these strategies can continue to work in the real world—which is governed less by economic theories than by the laws of physics. In the real world, some things don’t have substitutes, or the substitutes are too expensive, or don’t work as well, or can’t be produced fast enough. And efficiency follows a law of diminishing returns: the first gains in efficiency are usually cheap, but every further incremental gain tends to cost more, until further gains become prohibitively expensive.

Unlike economists, most physical scientists recognize that growth within any functioning, bounded system has to stop sometime.

But this discussion has very real implications, because the economy is not just an abstract concept; it is what determines whether we live in luxury or poverty; whether we eat or starve. If economic growth ends, everyone will be impacted, and it will take society years to adapt to this new condition. Therefore it is important to be able to forecast whether that moment is close or distant in time.

Hence the Limits to Growth study. The authors fed in data for world population growth, consumption trends, and the abundance of various important resources, ran their computer program, and concluded that the end of growth would probably arrive between 2010 and 2050. Industrial output and food production would then fall, leading to a decline in population. (By the way, the Limits to Growth scenario study has been re-run repeatedly in the years since the original publication, using more sophisticated software and updated input data. The results were similar. See Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.)

My Personal Story of Waking Up to Limits

That’s why Limits to Growth meant so much to me when I encountered it at age 21. I realized that the world in which I had been born, raised, and educated was headed toward what is politely known as a “historical discontinuity,” but more colloquially termed “collapse,” “a cliff,” or “a brick wall.” Millions of young people today are having the same experience as they learn about climate change. Welcome to the club.

At the time, I had been trying to make my way as a young musician. My father had been a chemistry and physics teacher, but I had gravitated toward the arts: after being trained as a classical violinist, I had taught myself also to play electric guitar.

As I absorbed the implications of Limits to Growth, I realized that there were more important things than band rehearsals and gigs to attend to, so I mostly left the music business (though I continue to be an avid amateur violinist) and began looking for ways to help shift society toward a more sustainable path. I became a freelance writer-editor and started pursuing projects I thought might lead me toward a better understanding of global trends and of how our species might avert an overwhelming economic and environmental disaster.

It was clear that society would need to undertake fundamental changes. But what were those changes, exactly? I thought the best way to find out would be to form an intentional community as a kind of social laboratory in which to explore alternatives in energy, food production, and lifestyles. I ended up spending most of the next 20 years living in three communities—one in Toronto that I helped establish, and others in Colorado and southern California that had already been going for some time before I joined. Intentional communities (sometimes also known as communes, with many now thriving under the banner of “eco-villages”) are a fascinating social phenomenon, and hundreds still flourish worldwide.

By the early 1990s, I was eager to reconnect with mainstream society and bring what I had learned to a wider audience. My wife, Janet Barocco, and I had met in an intentional community in southern California; together we moved to a suburban home in Santa Rosa. By the latter years of the decade I was teaching in a college program on sustainability that I had helped initiate and design, while also continuing to make my way as a freelance environmental writer.

It was at this point, in 1998, that I heard a second Great Wake-up Call.

Peak Oil

It came in the form of an article in Scientific American by veteran petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère (both of whom had overseen exploration and production in major oil companies), explaining why world oil extraction would reach a maximum around 2010 and begin its permanent decline thereafter. I quickly realized that Peak Oil would likely be the first non-negotiable global limit to growth. The hazy forecast that industrial society would hit a wall sometime in the 21st century was suddenly focused to a painful specificity. Growth had acquired a hard expiration date.

Of course, oil does not pose our only societal limit, or even the most important one in the bigger scheme of things: climate, water, and topsoil are clearly more crucial in the long run. But the peaking of world oil production could potentially bring modern industrial civilization to its knees, while also undercutting coordinated efforts to deal with all sorts of other problems.

Up to this point I had little interest in the subject of oil, or energy generally. However, as I re-read the Scientific American article, I realized the pivotal role petroleum plays in the modern world—in transportation, agriculture, and the chemicals and materials industries. I began spending hours each day studying energy history and oil production statistics. I soon realized that the Industrial Revolution was really the Fossil Fuel Revolution, and that our modern food system is based on cheap fossil energy. Further, the entire phenomenon of continuous economic growth—including the development of the financial institutions that facilitate growth, such as fractional reserve banking and the marketing of derivatives—is ultimately based on ever-increasing supplies of cheap energy. Growth requires more manufacturing, more trade, and more transport, and those all in turn require more energy. This means that if energy supplies can’t expand and energy therefore becomes significantly more expensive, economic growth will falter and the financial system built on expectations of perpetual growth will fail, possibly in a rather spectacular way.

As early as 1998, Campbell, Laherrère, and others were discussing a Peak Oil impact scenario that went like this. Sometime around the year 2010, they theorized, stagnant or falling oil supplies would lead to soaring and more volatile petroleum prices, which would precipitate a global economic crash. This rapid economic contraction would in turn lead to sharply curtailed energy demand, so oil prices would then fall; but as soon as the economy regained strength, demand for oil would recover, prices would again soar, and the economy would relapse. This cycle would continue, with each recovery phase being shorter and weaker, and each crash deeper and harder, until the economy was in ruins. Meanwhile, volatile oil prices would frustrate investments in energy alternatives: one year, oil would be so expensive that almost any other energy source would look cheap by comparison; the next year, the price of oil would have fallen so far that energy users would be flocking back to it, with investments in other energy sources looking foolish. Investment capital would be in short supply in any case because the banks would be insolvent due to the crash, and governments would be broke due to declining tax revenues. Meanwhile, international competition for dwindling oil supplies might lead to wars between petroleum importing nations, between importers and exporters, and between rival factions within exporting nations.

Naturally, I also examined the arguments against the likelihood of a near-term peak in global oil production. What if Campbell and Laherrère were simply wrong? There are those who claim that new technologies for crude oil extraction will increase the amount of oil that can be obtained from each well drilled, and that there are nearly endless reserves of alternative hydrocarbon resources (principally tar sands and oil shale) whose development will seamlessly replace conventional oil, thus delaying the inevitable peak for decades. There are also those who say that Peak Oil won’t be much of a problem even if it happens soon, because the market will find substitutes as quickly as needed—whether electric cars, hydrogen, or liquid fuel made from coal.

I found all of these arguments weak: the new oil extraction technologies won’t come into wide use for several years, and will be applicable mostly to newly developed fields (of which there are fewer and fewer each year as exploration efforts continue to show mostly disappointing results), not to the old super-giant oilfields that produce the great bulk of oil that we use today. Tar sands and oil shale will be slow to extract; indeed, in the case of oil shale, we may never derive liquid fuels in any substantial quantity due to the enormous costs of processing this very low-grade material. And substitutes like electric cars, liquids from coal, and hydrogen will take a very long time to develop and will in most cases be much more costly than the equivalent elements of our current system of petroleum fuels and internal combustion engines.

I continued to study the world energy situation for the next few years. And, with every passing year, events appeared to be supporting the Peak Oil thesis and undercutting the views of the oil optimists. Oil prices were trending upward—and for entirely foreseeable reasons: discoveries of new oilfields were continuing to peter out, with most new fields being much more difficult and expensive to develop than ones found in previous years. More oil-producing countries were seeing their extraction rates peaking and beginning to decline despite efforts to maintain production growth using high-tech, expensive secondary and tertiary extraction methods like the injection of water, nitrogen, or CO2 to force more oil out of the ground. Production decline rates in the world’s old, super-giant oilfields, which are responsible for the lion’s share of the global petroleum supply, were accelerating. Production of liquid fuels from tar sands was expanding only slowly, while the development of oil shale remained a hollow promise for the distant future.

I corresponded with and met the authors of the Scientific American article, and interviewed other petroleum geologists and engineers. One expert after another offered further reasons for concluding that the thesis of “The End of Cheap Oil” was correct, that there were no ready substitutes for crude oil, and that the consequences of a near-term global oil production peak would be profound.

Given the almost complete absence of mainstream media coverage of the subject, I spent several months assessing whether I should step into the breach and write a book on Peak Oil. The fact that I had no background in the oil industry or in any relevant academic field weighed against doing so. Yet the need was clearly overwhelming, so I decided to try. I spent 2001 and 2002 writing The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, which was published the following year and went on to sell over 50,000 copies with translations in six languages. I began receiving lecture invitations, and, over the next few years, gave over 300 talks to a wide variety of audiences in a dozen countries. More books followed: PowerDown: Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World (2004); The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse (2006); Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (2007); and Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (2009).

I was determined to sound a warning not just to the general public, but especially to politicians and appointed government officials. Members of a burgeoning informal global network of Peak Oil activists arranged for me speak to hundreds of national, state, and local politicians and appointed officials in the U.S., to about a hundred members of the European Parliament, and to national Parliamentarians in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand.

From Scary Theory to Scarier Reality

Then in 2008, the Peak Oil scenario became all too real. Global oil production had been stagnant since 2005 and petroleum prices had been soaring upward. In July, 2008, the per-barrel price shot up nearly to $150—half again higher (in inflation-adjusted terms) than the price spikes of the 1970s that had triggered the worst recession since World War II. By summer 2008, the auto industry, the trucking industry, international shipping, agriculture, and the airlines were all reeling.

But what happened next riveted the world’s attention to such a degree that the oil price spike was all but forgotten: in September 2008, the global financial system nearly collapsed. The reasons for this sudden, gripping crisis apparently had to do with housing bubbles, lack of proper regulation of the banking industry, and the over-use of bizarre financial products that almost nobody understood. However, there are reasons for concluding that the oil price spike was a much more important contributor to this economic meltdown than is generally discussed (see www.energybulletin.net/node/49798).

In the aftermath of that global financial near-death experience, both the Peak Oil impact scenario proposed a decade earlier and the Limits to Growth standard-run scenario of 1972 seemed to be confirmed with uncanny and frightening accuracy. Global trade was falling. The world’s largest auto companies were on life support. The U.S. airline industry had shrunk by almost a third. Food riots were erupting in poor nations around the world. Lingering wars in Iraq (the nation with the world’s second-largest crude oil reserves) and Afghanistan (the site of disputed oil and gas pipeline projects) continued to bleed the coffers of the world’s foremost oil-importing nation.

Meanwhile, the debate about what to do to rein in global climate change exemplified the political inertia that had kept the world on track for calamity since the early ’70s. It had by now become obvious to nearly every person of modest education and intellect that the world has two urgent, incontrovertible reasons to rapidly end its reliance on fossil fuels: the twin threats of climate catastrophe and impending constraints to fuel supplies (with most of the remaining oil reserves located in just a few countries). Yet at the Copenhagen climate conference in December, 2009, the priorities of the most fuel-dependent nations were clear: carbon emissions should be cut, and fossil fuel dependency reduced, but only if doing so does not threaten economic growth.

The cruel irony, obvious to my Peak Oil-aware colleagues but apparently not to the delegates at Copenhagen, was that the decades-long era of rapid economic growth based on increased fossil-fueled production and consumption is over anyway. The world’s last chance to collectively, cooperatively negotiate a turn away from the precipice was being squandered for the sake of a goal that was no longer achievable.

I could take no satisfaction from these confirmations of the Limits to Growth and Peak Oil scenarios; being able to say “I told you so” hardly made up for the shock of knowing that our last opportunities to change direction had been missed and that the train of industrial civilization was now not merely still chugging toward a broken bridge, but was actually starting to plummet into the gorge below. We had succeeded somewhat in helping increase public awareness of an issue: due to the efforts of thousands of scientists, writers, and activists, “peak oil” had become a recognizable term in public discourse. But we had failed to budge government policy in more than very minor ways (I had, for example, assisted the City Council-appointed Peak Oil Task Force of Oakland, California, which produced a sensible report on which, so far, little action has been taken).

The world has entered a new era. The project of awakening and warning policy makers and the general public was worthy of the investment of all the effort we could muster. In fact, it would have been negligent of the Limits to Growth authors, Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrère, and thousands of climate and environmental scientists and activists (myself included) not to give it our best shot. But it is now too late to avert a collapse of the existing system. The collapse has begun.

It is time for a different strategy.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that we should all simply give up and accept an inevitable, awful fate. Even though the collapse of the world’s financial and industrial systems has started, effort now at minimizing further dire consequences is essential. Collapse does not mean extinction. A new way of life will almost certainly emerge from the wreckage of the fossil-fueled growth era. It is up to those of us who have some understanding of what is happening, and why, to help design that new way of life so that it will be sustainable, equitable, and fulfilling for all concerned. We all need practical strategies and tools to weather the collapse and to build the foundation of whatever is to come after.

Journey to a New Economy

The propositions described above, and my personal journey, are the starting points for a search that can be summarized in a single question: What are the guideposts toward a livable, inviting post-growth society?

This search has in many instances entailed a literal, geographic journey. During the past few years, as I traveled the lecture circuit, I met thousands of people who had already concluded on their own that the global stage was being set for an economic crash of epic proportions. They had passed through the psychological stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They were thinking creatively, building new lives, and experimenting with a wide range of strategies for meeting basic human needs while using much less of just about everything.

Some of these folks, like me, had been thinking along these lines for a long time—since the 1970s. Many were much younger, though, had learned about Peak Oil or climate change just within the past few years, and had recently decided to devote their lives to building a post-hydrocarbon world. Some were clearly members of what was known in the 1970s as the “counterculture.” Others were mainstream citizens—investment bankers, real estate sellers, high school teachers, small business owners, corporate middle managers—who had chanced upon information that awakened them forcibly from their routines. Many of these folks lived in large cities, but others in small towns or on farms; some were rich, some poor (a few by choice); some were devout, others agnostic or atheist; some were working alone on survivalist projects, while others were building community organizations; some saw the transition as a business opportunity while others were working through non-profit organizations. Here are just three examples that stand out.

In 2005, while on a lecture tour in Ireland, I met a young college teacher named Rob Hopkins who believed that life could be better without fossil fuels. He had led his students in developing an “Energy Descent Action Plan” for their town, and believed he had the seed for something larger and more significant. He soon moved back to his native England to earn his Ph.D., and designed his thesis project around helping the village of Totnes begin a cooperative, phased process of transitioning away from its dependence on fossil fuels. This project in turn led to the start of a series of Transition Initiatives in villages, towns, and neighborhoods throughout the U.K. In 2007, a version of Rob’s written Ph.D. thesis was published as a book (The Transition Handbook) that quickly began inspiring others to take up this strategy. Today there are hundreds of Transition Initiatives at various stages of development in a dozen countries (including over 50 in the U.S.).

While in Montana for a speaking engagement at the University of Montana in Helena in spring 2009, some local Peak Oil activists drove me to the town of Ronan and introduced me to Billie Lee, who had helped start Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center. The Center is housed in a fairly small, non-descript building and features medium-scale food processing equipment that local small food producers can rent at reasonable rates. This enables small farmers to produce value-added products (everything from canned soups to herbal tea bags) that are profitable and are price-competitive with those made by industrial food companies located hundreds or thousands of miles from Ronan. Local food has become an obsession for the sustainability-minded during the past few years, and local food systems will be a necessary pillar of post-growth economies. Yet aspiring small-scale farmers often have a hard time getting started because they cannot afford the equipment to enable them to produce profitable value-added products. Here in the tiny hamlet of Ronan was an ingenious solution to the problem, and one that deserves to be replicated in every agricultural county in the nation.

On a trip to New England in 2007, I met Lynn Benander, a community energy activist and entrepreneur who had started a project called Co-op Power to bring renewable energy to low-income and multi-ethnic communities throughout the Northeast. Typically, renewable energy projects cost more to get going than conventional coal or gas power projects, and so they tend to be found in wealthier communities and regions. Conversely, the most polluting energy projects tend to be sited in or near poor neighborhoods or regions. Co-op Power aims to change that imbalance of power—in a way that any community can copy. A typical project: You help four people put up a solar hot water system and everyone comes to help you put up yours; you save 40 to 50 percent off your total system price, get to know your neighbors, and learn how your system works. Co-op Power had also pioneered a cooperative financing method that cuts through the usual roadblocks to renewable energy projects in poorer neighborhoods by leveraging member equity.

Individually, these initiatives and projects may seem to be on too small a scale to make much of a difference. But multiplied by thousands, with examples in nearly every community, they represent a quiet yet powerful movement.

Few of these efforts have gained national media attention. Most media commentators who address economic issues are focused on the prospects—positive or negative—of the existing growth-based economy. These projects don’t seem all that important within that framework of thinking. But in the new context of the no-growth economy, they may mean the difference between ruinous poverty and happy sufficiency.

The trends are already in evidence: as the financial crisis worsens, more people are planting gardens, and seed companies are working hard to keep up with the demand. More young people are taking up farming now than in any recent decade. In 2008, more bicycles were sold in the U.S. than automobiles (not good news for the struggling car companies, but great news for the climate). And since the crisis started, Americans have been spending much less on non-essentials—repairing and re-using rather than replacing and adding.

Many economists assume these trends are short-term and that Americans will return to consumerism as economic crisis shifts into recovery. But if there is no “recovery” in the usual sense, then these trends will only grow.

This is what the early adopters are assuming. They believe that the nation and the world have turned a corner. They understand something the media either ignore or deny. They’re betting on a future of local food systems, not global agribusiness; of community credit co-ops rather than too-big-to-fail Wall Street megabanks; of small-scale renewable energy projects, not a world-spanning system of fossil-fuel extraction, trade, and consumption. A future in which we do for ourselves, share, and cooperate.

They’re embarking on a life after growth.

* * *

The realization that growth is at an end raises many questions. Will the financial impact be inflationary or deflationary? Will some nations fare better than others, leading to protectionist trade wars? Will the “down-sizing” of social and economic complexity lead also to a substantial die-off of the human species? How quickly will all of this happen?

There simply are no hard and fast answers to such questions. The financial, energy, food, transport, and political systems on which we rely are complex, so it is almost impossible to reliably model their response to a shock such as a resource limits-imposed end to economic growth. The only reasonable response, it seems to me, is to act as if survival is possible, and to build resilience throughout society as quickly as can be, acting locally wherever there are individuals or groups with the understanding and wherewithal. We must assume that a satisfactory, sustainable way of life is achievable in the absence of fossil fuels and conventional economic growth, and go about building it. This will be the focus of my work from now on—and it is likely to be the work of the next few generations as well. Call it Transition, call it cultural survival and renewal, call it what you will, it is the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

* A recent study by Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) concluded, “[Our] analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features of [the Limits to Growth] business-as-usual scenario….”'

Our Society Needs Some Serious Cultural Engineering

Reposted in full from The Ecologist, 10 March 2010

'The editor of the influential Worldwatch 'State of the World' report on the best ways to transform cultures from consumerism to sustainability

Matilda Lee: Humans are social animals competing for status, which, in our consumer society, is displayed largely through the things on which we spend our money. How can we ever sate our appetite for status without these things?

Erik Assadourian: Culture defines what gives one status. In our consumer culture, status is equated with stuff. In some cultures, it is not a status symbol to keep buying new stuff, but to take care of the stuff we already have. Changing status symbols will not happen without serious cultural engineering. This may be uncomfortable for some, but cultural engineering has been happening for consumer interests for the last century or more.

For example, in order to spread the car the automobile industry had to 'normalise' the idea that roads are for cars and not people. It did this not only through advertising and marketing, but also by working with schools to get children to sign petitions not to play in the streets. In some cities, they bought up trolley systems and dismantled them to destroy the competition. The environmental community, if it really expects to create a sustainable society, needs to start using these same tactics more effectively, rather than just fighting at a political advocacy level.

ML: Western consumerism has become an almost unstoppable force around the globe. Just as many in China and India are starting to lead lives closer to the average American,
environmentalists are saying they mustn't. Doesn't this smack of unfairness?

EA: First of all, this assumes that people strive to be consumers just because it is a better life. Chinese individuals and families aren't taking on these consumer trends because they are better, but because there is a huge effort to market these ideas as better. It's a manipulative process to get people to be consumers. This isn't about developing countries not following in our mistaken footprints, but the fact Western countries have to willingly let go of our consumer culture. Consumer interests have a high level of regulatory capture. The answer to me becomes that those individuals who already understand what is looming ahead of us need to take an active role in transforming cultures.

ML: As regards economic growth, what do you make of the idea of 'good growth' as opposed to 'bad growth', or do you believe that 'no growth' economics is the answer?

EA: It depends on the country and the community, but a country like the US should have in its agenda not 'good growth' or 'no growth' but literally to 'de-grow'. The de-growth movement recognises that we are far beyond our ecological capacity. The world could maintain only 1.4 billion Americans. There are already 300 million of us, so we have to get to a fraction of our current consumption levels. Certain markets and businesses will still grow as they replace less sustainable businesses. Shortening work hours is essential - the New Economics Foundation put a number on it: 21 hours. Shorter working hours would ensure a better distribution of income and more time for families and communities to live sustainably. With more time you can cook, walk and bike more. While more people could afford the basics, discretionary income would be reduced, so fewer people could afford to fly to the Caribbean or buy a second car.

ML: To what extent does our relationship with nature need to change to bring about the needed culture shift? Do you think it is sufficient for us to have a basic ecological understanding, or do we need to love and respect nature in order to live in harmony with it?

EA: This is a running debate. The environmentalist in me wants to say that it has to do with love and respect of nature. But ultimately, it doesn't have to be either/or. If we truly understood our dependence on the planet in order to survive and thrive, even if we didn't have an internalised mythological relationship with it, I think we would be OK.

ML: Science and technology - from carbon capture and storage, GM, nuclear, geo-engineering, in-vitro meat - is bringing solutions to many ecological crises without the need to change our consumption patterns. What's your view on our ability, through science and technology, to invent our way out of global crises?

EA: If you listed a different set of technologies, I would have given you a different answer. Technology is an essential tool that we will use. But the technologies that are most valuable in my mind are things like Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland's 'Living Machine', a biological sewage treatment system, which is now used by a town of 500,000. It has developed to the point where they are even treating the things we don't know what to do with, like estrogens. The technology of our future, if we truly understood our dependence on the earth, would probably be more biological, not this artificial gene manipulation where we are assuming that climate change is the problem. In reality, it is just a symptom of a culture that is maladapted to life on a finite planet.

ML: You point to the need to change the stories we tell as a society. Millions of people have seen the film Avatar. Do you think people walk away with a greater awareness of, or connection to, the planet? What else is need to bring about sudden shifts in behavioural patterns?

EA: Advertising is basically fertiliser to stimulate consumption. Even a failed advertising campaign that doesn't end up selling more of a product ramps up the broader background noise to consume. Watching Avatar won't lead to a sudden shift but will help build up a background of stories with ecological messages. Avatar has a very powerful story, similar to the documentary Crude, but seen by millions more people.

ML: When it comes to changing culture, lot of ideas you discuss are essentially intangibles. Traditional campaigning is quite different, relying on changing specific policies or reducing a given pollutant. How are campaigners meant to measure the success of attempts at culture change?

EA: Our current system is dependent on foundation grants that expect us to measure success in quantitative terms. This is not a campaign, but a deeper cultural shift. We may need a different set of indicators to track change. A lot of people engaged in cultivating a culture of sustainability probably don't see themselves in cultural change terms. Those working on making school meals more sustainable, local and healthy aren't trying to change culture, but they are having a major impact on our understanding of where food comes from. There needs to be some lee-way for those working at the deeper level of supporting cultural change agents.

ML: Could you give a few of the most promising examples of culture change in the US and abroad?

EA: The Roman school food system, where 67 per cent of the city's school food is organic and 26 per cent is local, is inspiring just by virtue of how far they've got. In the US, the non-profit organisation B Labs has already certified 190 corporations as B Corporations, redesigning corporate charters with a social mission. Governments have a valuable tool in 'choice editing', which essentially cuts out unnecessarily damaging products and provides more sustainable choices in order to redirect norms. We often talk about changing people's values in order to change their behaviour. But actually if you change people's behaviours their values change in accordance.'