Finding Our Frontlines

Originally posted on

Introduction by John Foran

This special edition of Earth News is devoted to attempting to begin to tell the story of what has been happening at Standing Rock through reports from some of its key participants and observers.  There is no doubt in my mind that this front in the epic struggle for global climate justice – and so much more – will be recognized in the future as a crucial epicenter, a ground zero, of our movement, because it marks a convergence of indigenous actors with other people of color and white allies to confront major corporations of the fossil fueled-drive to our extinction.  Its ramifications – politically, economically, culturally, and existentially – will be many.

As you read, keep in mind that ninety percent of the text is from the pieces I have gathered to tell the story.  My voice enters in mainly to briefly introduce each one.  Thanks to all the original authors and sources of the stories; unless otherwise noted, the images also come from the stories reproduced here.  Please refer to each piece for the complete story in each case, as I have only published extracts here, as is the way with Earth News in general.


How to Fight Big Oil: Join Your Neighbors

Written by Sarah van Gelder

Originally posted on

The last few weeks and months have seen major victories for communities resisting oil trains, coal terminals, pipelines, and strip mines. This is big news at a time of an out-of-control climate crisis—this July and August tied as the hottest months ever recorded. Could these stories represent our best shot at taking on the giant corporations and banks that are trying to build new fossil fuel projects at a time when we need to be phasing out carbon-based fuels?

Case in point: On Oct. 5, the San Louis Obispo County Planning Board rejected the application by Phillips 66 to build a railroad spur to its Nipomo Mesa refinery, based on widespread safety concerns. Coincidentally, that same day, Shell Oil Co., pulled its plan for an oil train line north of Seattle that would have brought Bakken oil to the company’s Anacortes refinery. The company cited low oil prices, but the growing movement to stop the oil trains may have been a factor. Seattle is where hundreds of protesters in kayaks and tribal canoes faced down Shell’s massive drilling rig last year; the company has since abandoned plans for Arctic drilling.

And in late September, the small San Francisco Bay town of Benicia voted unanimously to deny Valero a permit to transport 70,000 barrels of oil a day by train through the community to the company’s refinery.

Certainly not all confrontations with the oil and gas industry result in victories—some communities welcome the projects; some are unable to stop them. Still, what is it that has made it possible for one community after another to win against the powerful and extremely wealthy fossil fuel industry?

Consider these factors:

1. Moral authority 

These local groups demonstrate a commitment to the well-being of generations of people. The Standing Rock Tribe, for example, a small community on an impoverished North Dakota reservation, is countering a giant energy corporation and transnational banks. Prayerful nonviolence, coupled with their stand for the water and all the lives that depend on it, is drawing support from around the world.

2. Sovereignty

The tribes, whose sovereignty is spelled out in the treaties negotiated with the U.S. government, are becoming increasingly sophisticated about defending their rights. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to build a giant new coal terminal in Bellingham, Washington, for example, acknowledging the Lummi Tribe’s treaty rights. Nontribal communities have rights, too, a fact that was recognized in late September when the federal Surface Transportation Board refused to override the Benicia ban on the oil trains.

3. Commitment

Sometimes persistence makes the difference, and those who are defending their homes may be willing to work harder in spite of adversity. Last year I interviewed southeastern Montana ranchers who told me of the hours they spent reading reams of documents and traveling hundreds of miles to testify at legislative hearings or speak at rallies to stop the proposed Otter Creek strip mine. The coal company eventually halted the project, in part because of “regulatory uncertainty.” In other words, the mining company gave up when faced with self-described “ornery ranchers,” who had aligned with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and weren’t about to give up on the land. 

4. Solidarity

Even with all these assets on the side of communities, the size and power of big corporations can still overwhelm them. That’s where solidarity comes in. The Northern Cheyenne people and the ranchers in southeast Montana, the Lummi Tribe and environmentalists in Washington state were able to win together when they might not have won alone. When the Standing Rock Sioux put out a call for help, hundreds of tribes responded, along with non-Natives from around the United States and around the world.

In each case I’ve researched, the community was motivated to stop a pipeline, oil train, or coal terminal by the safety and health of its own citizens. But people far beyond also benefited, as did the natural world. The atmosphere is already saturated with greenhouse gases. A new study by Oil Change International shows that no new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be allowed if we are to have any prospect of keeping worldwide temperature increases to less than 2 degrees.

Perhaps we will turn the tide on the climate crisis one community at a time.


Community Resilience and Being the Change

Written by Community Solutions Senior Fellow Don Hollister

“Perform random acts of kindness,” reads a car bumper sticker. Boy Scouts pledge to do a good deed daily. My first reactions to these dictums are, why not “systematic kindness,” and “many good deeds all the time?” However, I do recall in my scouting days trying to do that one good deed each day. 

What small daily acts, what routine social habits help weave the fabric of community? 

As a personal next step, in your particular life situation, what specific social act would you identify that would be effective in enriching the social fabric around you? What would be your Social New Year’s resolution? 

In my neighborhood, a suburban tract developed in the 1950s and 60s, we wave at our neighbors as we put out our trash can for the weekly pick up or as we drive by on the way to work. I have had many of the same neighbors for 20-30 years, yet know them largely through activities in our small town outside the neighborhood --- through school sports, scouting, civic meetings, in the grocery store, at a coffee shop. They are acquaintances through casual contact over the years. At the far end
of my street I may not even remember the names of people I have waved to for years. 

I resolve to have a substantive conversation with a different neighbor at least once a week. I am going to make a list of everyone on the street and gradu- ally try to visit with them all. There are 35 houses on our one block long street. This will be no small task, but once the pattern is established it will be fun. I will be more consistent in my neighbor- hood walks, looking for opportunities to chat. 

So what is my point in writing this? Much of our talk about society and promoting resilience is about environmental sustainability, economic patterns, and local food and energy supplies, with relatively little about the 

social and psychic. In a crisis, be it the aftermath of a record breaking storm or the slow motion desolation from the departure of a major local employer, the existing social relationships and morale will be a key factor in effective- ness of any emergency measures or lon- ger term recovery. 

It seems harder to get specific about the emotional and spiritual sides of community resilience. Yet every day in our daily lives we interact with people, family, neighbors and coworkers, build- ing bonds in little ways ... or not. How we live has developed out of daily inter- actions as we have grown over the years, much of it by unconscious imitation. Many bits in my daily routine I associate with a family member or friend. 

“That’s how Dad did it.” “The lady at the garden center showed me this way.” And that behavior building or altering process continues throughout life. 

In many ways the social interaction and the spiritual dimensions of community are more immediate and accessible to an individual’s initiative and influence than the economic and structural aspects of a community. By being attentive to how you interact with people in your daily life you can make a difference. Whether you know it or not, how you live is teaching others. Whether you know it or not, you are being the change. 

The more intentional you are in your behavior, the more conscious you are of the impact of your actions, the more you can “be the change.” This is hardly an exact science. We may misunderstand the effects of our actions, but keep watching and learning. 

Imagine how you wish the world would be and try to live in such a way that your actions contribute to making that vision a reality. Picture what you wish your local community would be like and use your daily life to help paint that image. Of course, your neighbors may have a very different social ideal in mind, or, as likely, they are living unconsciously from a different social conditioning and have not stopped to think about it. 

How can Community Solutions help you with your work in your own community and in your effort to Be the Change? 

As adults we go through stages of life, changes in our relationships, as partners, as parents, as caretakers changes in our work--our physical health -- and changes in our values and motivations. We do not stop grow- ing and changing. Each phase of life presents different internal personal challenges and new potential ways of influencing the world around us, new ways of being the change. 

People who hear about Community Solutions tend to be attracted at a time that they are shifting in their life. An individual reads one of our books or views one of our DVD’s, attends one or two of our conferences, finds the stories of other people’s work and ideas to be inspiring, becomes a member for a few years, pays dues, reads the newsletter, and moves on to another stage of their life. Over our 75 year history perhaps a few thousand people have attended a conference and become an engaged member. A much smaller number have remained in touch with the CS office through correspondence and the occasional phone call or visit, sometimes for decades. 

We want to facilitate that long term contact and mutual communication. Our thought is that by encouraging more direct contact among those members who share interest in a particular theme we may foster a synergy in ways that the more passive communication of ideas and information from our office cannot. In turn, a network of working relationships among social activists will inform and strengthen the work of our office center. 

We are in transition from being primarily a center for ideas and information to becoming a network and fellowship of people at work in their home communities. This is a work in progress and your suggestions are welcome. 

If you have a story to tell about your own work or the work of others that you consider to be a model worth sharing please let us know. 

Would you like to organize a showing of one of Community Solutions documentaries, The Power of Community, The Passive House Revolution, or a presentation about The Hundred Year Plan with a trailer of that upcoming film? 

We invite you to join a cluster of Community Solutions members focused on one of our areas of concern: Resilient Community, Regenerative Land Use, Energy Democracy, Community Economy, Being the Change. Call or write us to hear more about what other members are doing in your area of interest. For those members who live in our southwest Ohio region you may be interested in more direct involvement. 

Read the entire newsletter here.

Small Community, Big Solutions: Antioch College Students Work Toward Sustainability

Written by Community Solutions Miller Fellow Rose Hardesty

After 75 years on East Whiteman Street, Community Solutions has moved to a larger office on the campus of Antioch College. Our connection with the college goes back to the beginning. Our founder, Arthur Morgan, served as the college’s president in the 1920s. The co-op program is his most memorable and lasting curricular innovation, one of several policies that stemmed from Morgan’s belief that college needed to educate the whole person, cultivating in students academic, technical and social knowledge, as well as a sense of purpose. 

There is a lot of overlap between these ideas and the Community Solutions mission today. Our approach is also holistic, recognizing that true sustainability is impossible without a culture of local and cooperative living, and vice versa. 

However, the most tangible present connection to Antioch is not our founder, or our new physical location, it is our student workers. We currently have four Antioch Miller Fellows (Lucas Bautista, Rose Hardesty, Scott Montgomery, Alex Wragg) and one LEAF Scholar (Leah Newton) on staff. 

The Miller Fellowship Program is a program of the Yellow Springs Community Foundation, funded by the Nolan J. and Richard D. Miller Endowment Fund. Nolan Miller was Associate Editor of The Antioch Review, a beloved Antioch College professor and writing teacher. Richard Miller, his brother, was a highly regarded artist working in many different media. The purpose of the fund is to support Antioch College students who engage in service for the benefit of the Yellow Springs community. Students work part-time during academic quarters, and full-time over co-op. 

LEAF (Leadership and the Environment at Antioch Fellowship) Scholars are students with demonstrated aptitude and commitment to the field of environmental science. They receive half tuition scholarships at Antioch as part of the college’s efforts to promote sustainability. LEAF scholars also commit to volunteer five hours a week in local environmental organizations. 

I sat down to talk with each of our Antioch student employees, and share their experiences as well as my own below. 

What have you learned working at Community Solutions? 

Lucas: “I learned how to design a website and maintain it.” Scott adds, “Lucas particularly enjoys the opportunity to develop technical expertise
to work on social marketing and IT related jobs and improve his communication skills, especially online.”

Scott: “I have enjoyed the opportunity to develop many professional skills, such as creating online newsletters, managing social media accounts, and using Google analytics to analyze our website’s traffic and make data- informed decisions.” 

Leah: “I have learned about the community here and gotten a better perspective on what is going on locally. I work with Jonna, so I am engaged with the Springfield Promise program, and the 365 Project, and various community oriented programs that I other- wise would not have known existed.” 

Alex: “I have had a variety of tasks, from data entry to manual labor. My co-op here was my first nine to five job, so I got to learn what that was like.” 

Rose: “Grant research and writing has been a huge part of what I do here, and that is such a valuable skill. I have also been involved in strategic planning, and have learned a lot about the inner workings of non-profit organizations. I am not an environmental scientist, I am a storyteller, and Community Solutions has shown me a variety of ways that can be valuable in environmental work and activism.” 

Are there connections between your work here and what you are doing at Antioch? 

Lucas: “There are direct connections to classes like Global Seminar: Energy, or any class related to the 

environment. I am also on Antioch’s Sustainability Committee, and part of the Student Activists for Sustainability, so there are a lot of connections.” 

Scott: “There are a lot of connections between my work here and classroom learning. For example, I took a Social Marketing for Sustainability class at Antioch, and the tie-ins for my work here were very strong. It was a great opportunity to take what I was learning in the class- room and immediately apply it to my job at Community Solutions.” 

Leah: “Yes, I have been able to tie in my environmental science curriculum with what I am doing here. I also work on the Antioch College farm, and there has been dialogue between the farm and Community Solutions and Springfield Promise. Earlier this week, someone I know from Springfield Promise came to the Antioch farm, and some of the Antioch farm workers went to see some Springfield gardens, to have an exchange of ideas.” 

Alex: “As an environmental science major, I see connections between our emphasis on renewable energy and sustainable agriculture and the kinds of things I want to do later in life.” 

Rose: “There are a lot of connections between what I am learning here and what I am learn- ing at Antioch, and they really build on each other. I did a lot of research and some of the writing for the grant that 

funded Community Solutions’ Energy Navigators project, which I then presented on as my final class project in Global Seminar: Energy. 

“My Ecopsychology class at Antioch really helped me shape how I view ideas we talk about at Community Solutions such as Inner Transition and Being the Change, which then later informed my relationship to texts in my Ecological Theology and Religion class. 

“I have also been able to pursue independent projects at Community Solutions that connect to my literature major, such as curating a children’s library with books that explore the themes of community and environ- mental stewardship.” 

What is your favorite part of work- ing at Community Solutions? 

Lucas: “I really like our Friday lunches, for the good food and the good conversation.” 

Scott: “I enjoy being able to contribute to major decisions. We’re not just grabbing everyone’s coffee, we actually have significant roles. I enjoy being part of the team.” 

Leah: “Rose always has chocolate.” 

Alex: “The really good people, and the conversations we have here.” 

Rose: “I like working at a job that represents an intersection of my values- -environmental conservation, community and social justice.” 

Devolution, Revolution and Evolution

Written by Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings

We in the United States are on the eve of an election season that finds a majority of citizens disenchanted and aware that our political and economic institutions are stagnant—or worse, intransigent—in the face of economic, social, and environmental distress. For some of us, wholesale dismantling seems the only way out. Our communities are a mirror of the discontent that’s rising globally, often manifesting as devolutionary and revolutionary pressures. Beyond the much-publicized Brexit vote, there are 38 cities and regions in Great Britain that have filed for devolution, the opportunity to re-localize some economic and political power. Secessionist movements are burgeoning in every continent. Revolution likewise is seeping into global dialogues and action—including in our own country. Our climate is likened by some to the 1930s, when fascism and communism were on fire across the planet. 

Underneath many of these efforts is a chafing against global and centralized power and the resulting destruction of local communities. While re-localization and the refusal to succumb to the monocultures and systemic racism of global finance and industry are healthy responses to our interconnected crises, even a brief glance at history shows how problematic devolutions and revolutions can be if they substitute one demagogue or ideology for another, or result in tribalism, violence, or the building of literal and philosophical walls. 

A third strategy is the rapid evolution of ourselves and our institutions. Evolutionary leaps have the benefit of bringing the resources and strengths of current institutions into the future. Perhaps more importantly, evolution can help us to avoid the blame and recriminations that hamstring our creative responses. Cooperation and conversation can be tools of rapid evolution. 

For the past several decades, multi-disciplinary conversations and research have been a counter-current to increased disciplinary specialization, sparking some of the most interesting discoveries and patterns in science and academia. Sustainability, for example, is the ultimate multi-disciplinary investigation--calling on (at least) economics, physics, biology, sociology, political science, and chemistry. Multi-disciplinary conversations build bridges between the self-generated silos of knowledge and remind us of the essential connections between us and the world within and around us. 

Multi-institutional conversations likewise provide the space for reimagining the divisions that we have thought of as irrevocable. What are the real differences between our economic and political systems, if any? What is the pedagogy implicit in banking? What assumptions about work and family are built into our educational systems? 

A physical conversation between institutions is exploding. B-Corporations and work-study pro- grams are one manifestation. Another are the multi-stakeholder collaborations that are enabling communities to re-occupy their local assets in ways that benefit community members. An example is the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Sparked from a social impact investing interest of the Cleveland Foundation, the cooperatives have enabled the purchasing power of several large institutions to build thriving, neighborhood-based, worker’s collaboratives throughout some of the most economically-stressed communities in the city. 

At Community Solutions much of the work that has been spawned from our recent strategic planning process is likewise systemic and involves multi- institutional, multi-cultural, and multi- stakeholder collaboration. Our work in Resilient Communities, Regenerative Agriculture, Energy Democracy, Community Economics and Being the Change examines re-localization from multiple angles and perspectives, and is reflected in the projects you’ll read about here, including: 

• The One Hundred Year Plan film, a conversation between cultures; 

• Our soils projects, which bring together citizen scientists, scientific activists, and farmer-teachers; 

• Student research investigating the gaps in our regional food system and the student entrepreneurial opportunities involved in closing them; 

• Our Community Economic Incubator dialogues, through which our collaborative network is investi- gating social enterprise opportunities that increase regional resilience; 

• Our Community Fellows and the Miller Fellows programs, which bring the creative energy of students and community members to the problem-solving table; 

• And a suggestion that a conversation with neighbors could begin to re-weave the net of neighborhood resilience for all of us. 

We hope you enjoy these reflections, and consider becoming part of the conversation by fostering collaborations in your own profession or neighborhood, and by attending our Charting a New Course conference and dialogues this October 21-23 in Yellow Springs. We look forward to evolving with you. 

Read the entire newsletter here.

In Production

Written by Conference Speaker Jim Merkel 

The Hundred Year Plan is a film directed by Jim Merkel
in conjunction with The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions about three societies that have a low carbon footprint with a high standard of living. 

The timeliness of our film is punctuated by the trend in 82 nations for women to birth below replacement levels, a result of education, opportunities and access to contraception and legal abortion. At this historic moment, as population pressures ease, 56 nations have established policies to increase birthrates, fearing the effects of population decline. 

Filmmaker Jim Merkel travels to Cuba, Kerala, Slovenia and back to the USA to meet empowered women who birth lightly and strive to reduce their ecofootprints. Such small families and footprints maintained for 100 years could com- passionately return half the earth to nature, averting the 6th extinction and reversing climate change. Today humanity uses 62 percent more than earth’s ecosystems can renew. The film asks, “Is a ‘New Woman’ emerging ready to rebalance earth?” We aim to meet these “New Women” and let them tell their story. 

This past January Jim hitch hiked about Cuba and set up interviews with women who had a degrowth story to tell. The locations were chosen where the diversity of perspectives on Cuban life could be found—Havana, the small yet beautiful city of Sancti Spiritus, and the rural areas of Medio and Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs. 

After months of preparation the Community Solutions film team assembled in Havana on April 12, seven in total, filling a bright yellow VW van to the gills with camera gear, luggage and bodies. The team from the US included Deborah Shaffer as producer and interviewer, Bob Maraist from Fulcrum Films, as director of photography and Jim as director. The Cuban team included Pedro Martin, a filmmaker who assisted with setup, translations and logistics, Susana Meriño who captured sound, our driver, Angelo a delightful bike racer and Ronny, who secured all the gov- ernment permissions and guided us to locations. The team filmed ordinary educated Cubans, permaculture farmers, activists, medical workers, and educators. 

Our Cuban producer is The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, (ICAIC), which was founded in 1959 to broadly educate and mobilize the then illiterate population. ICIAC aimed toward imperfect cinema that advanced participation in film instead of passive con- sumption. With their assistance, we were able to conduct every interview that we’d requested. 

We filmed every day with Bob and Susana up late into the morning downloading and logging footage. Now home we are busy transcribing, translating and editing a mountain of footage. The other day I was sitting in a café in Belfast, 

Maine with a friend Chris Hughes translating the interview with one of our main characters, Leidy Casimiro. Toward the end of the interview, we’d asked if there was a “New Woman” emerging in Cuba. Leidy responded: 

“Yes, there is a New Woman in Cuba. There are women, prepared to face any event, any challenge. They are very capable Cuban women, with a culture, as I said, both integral and comprehensive. The general conditions throughout the country are quite good, with everything we have learned in the schools from when we were young. Now, the New Woman that I also visualize and with whom I could join, is this woman who does not need much to feel happy. With a very few things and with her own hands she is able to create and recreate with her family what is needed to feel good.” 

Leidy and her family are not strangers to adversity, coming from farming families where university education was rare. At 35 years old she is the mother of one boy, Dario, has a degree in Law and is getting her Ph.D. in Agroecology. When asked about her vision, she shared: 

“The vision I have is here on this farm. I’d like to start a school where people can come and learn by doing. I see 

myself as a teacher, to anyone who wants to learn about these advantages and the things we have done well, and all these proven technologies.” 

One morning we filmed Leidy with muckboots shoveling cow manure into a biodigester built by her younger sister Chavely. Later, she worked on her thesis. Her focus is to “lay the methodological foundations for the transition to family farms, specifically in Cuba, which can also serve as an example for other countries in the region.” Between the volatility of global markets, the embargo and having lived through the “Special Period” her family came to value resilience and self-sufficiency. Leidy explains: 

“My goal and that of our whole family was to produce everything needed to live. That is, not only food, but also energy and the technology to produce that food. We can thereby be more independent and not harm the environment— using solar energy, wind energy, and water energy. We are powerful because we produce all without fossil fuels, without hiring or bringing supplies from abroad.” 

The biogas digester filled that morning will turn cow manure into methane for cooking, baking, dehydrating, refrigeration, lighting, and generating power. The effluent from the biodigester fertilizes their dozens of varieties of fruit trees and fields. This effluent turns out to be six times more valuable than milk to their system. In this way, the family produces over 98% of their food. They make soap, press cooking oil, grow rice and dry beans and, more importantly, feel unrushed and involve the children in the daily rhythm. Leidy summarizes her vision as “falling in love with the project of our life.” 

This September Jim will attend the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest with a press pass and also present the topics of our film, The Hundred-Year Plan. Then I’ll travel into Slovenia where I have interviews lined up with activists, researchers and practitioners who are transitioning society toward Degrowth while working toward gender equality. 

Read the entire newsletter here.

3 Reasons the Standing Rock Sioux Can Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline

Originally posted on

Written by Mark Trahant

America has more than 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines crossing the country in every direction. So plans to construct the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline from oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Patoka, Illinois, were supposed to be a nonevent. The regulatory process was largely through state commissions and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and far less stringent than the successfully opposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Just one more pipeline.

On July 25, the Army Corps granted authorization for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, and developers hoped to open the pipeline sometime later this year. It would transport some 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day—roughly half of the Bakken daily oil production—on treaty lands a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objected. The pipeline route threatens the tribe’s drinking water and would disturb sacred and cultural sites, and so the tribal government has opposed the project since 2014.

A couple hundred tribal members went to the construction site on Aug. 12 with a vow to stop the pipeline. And to make that point clear, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault chose to be arrested after crossing into the construction zone. Since that day, hundreds of Native Americans and allies from across the country have been camped near the Missouri River to join the protest. For now, construction has ceased while a court hears the tribe’s suit against the Army Corps for failing to comply with environmental and historic preservation laws.

The tribe makes a strong case based on its treaty and U.S. policy. But no matter what happens in court, there are three reasons the tribe and its allies can stop this pipeline.

First, people are more powerful than dollars.

Through social media, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people from Indian Country and beyond are making plans to travel to Standing Rock to be on that defense line. This is the power of social media, of people in numbers: There will always be more allies. One Facebook post goes up and more people arrive. Everyone who shows up knows that they could be arrested and are willing to be. How many arrests, and how much will that cost the state and the developer? A local county sheriff has warned of violence. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple already issued an emergency declaration to give state agencies funding for “public safety,” which is estimated to cost as much as a million dollars.

But the state is missing the point; this protest is about a competing idea for the future of the planet—and waves of people will show up to make that point.

Second, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe clearly has the moral high ground. An earlier proposal for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota, was scrapped because it threatened the capital's water supply. So the very decision to move the route south was to sacrifice Native communities. A decade ago, even a couple of years ago, that might have worked. But not in the era of social media. People of goodwill easily recognize this injustice.

Third, the most important reason the tribe and its allies can stop this pipeline, is that this is The Moment. There has been for a long time a growing recognition that more oil, gas, and coal need to be left in the ground. Although Keystone was defeated by popular resistance, there were many opportunities in its regulatory path for that to happen. The Dakota Access pipeline is different because the government so easily flipped on the green light. Standing Rock represents the first opportunity people have to take a stand and disrupt business-as-usual.

Once there was a case to be made for pipelines, but that moment was in our history and is now irrelevant. Many hoped there would be an easy transition away from fossil fuels to future sources. But easy transitions rarely happen in history. Instead, industry is hit by a disruptive force that changes everything, and today its name is the Standing Rock Sioux.



Limitless imagination and physical limits

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

Humans can imagine lots of things. They can imagine angels and demons. They can imagine whole worlds unlike ours with beings unlike us. They can convey these products of imagination in art, in literature and in film.

They can imagine flying machines, armored cars, diving suits, machine guns and human-like robots. Leonardo da Vinci imagined all of them hundreds of years before they became everyday reality. Hero of Alexandria, a Roman citizen and engineer, described a steam engine 1700 years before Thomas Savery obtained the first patent for one.

It didn't occur to the ancient Romans to refine the idea of the steam engine for transport or industrial work. They lacked the imagination for such a move and perhaps the necessity. After all, they had built a thriving empire without the steam engine, and the Mediterranean already offered quick, wind-powered transport to practically any part of the empire.

How do we distinguish those ideas that are forever going to remain in the realm of fiction and those that can become concrete reality? Of those that are possible how do we determine which won't destroy us? Both questions are very difficult ones indeed.

We are "moderns". We believe we have thrown off the burden of superstition and can now see in the clear light of day all the rational possibilities in the world that were previously hidden from our understanding. In this era of enlightenment the rush of invention and the power it has given us have resulted in the conceit that there is no limit to the power we can ultimately have.

That has given rise to an entire genre of fiction we call science fiction. Much of it concerns itself with space travel, particularly encounters with faraway alien civilizations. And, there is some reason to believe, just based on the immense size of the universe, that such civilizations exist even though we have never heard from them.

The science fiction genre and the enormous technological flowering of our age has encouraged the notion that anything we can imagine, we can achieve or invent. With regard to invention, the trouble with imagination as prediction is that if our imagination were vivid enough to detail the workings of a futuristic invention, those details would be tantamount to having created the invention itself.

All too often, we have objects with mere capabilities, but with no specifications. We have energy-matter transporters, but no specifications and no reason to believe based on the laws of physics that there could be any. We have ships that travel faster than the speed of light. There are theories about how to achieve such speeds. But, the amount of energy required is so enormous--by one calculation the energy contained in all the matter of the planet Jupiter to propel a 1,000 cubic meter ship--that it is hard to imagine how such an energy burst, if achieved, would not destroy the object it was trying to propel.

And, here we get to the crux of the matter. The above illustration is probably the most extreme one we could conjure of what actually constitutes technical prowess. Technology requires energy to run. What we've essentially been doing so far is substituting fossil fuel energy for human labor to run the technology that makes us feel so powerful. This has allowed productivity per person to skyrocket in the industrial age, but at a cost. That cost is the rapid depletion of fossil fuels and the climate effects of burning them.

Technology has given us the illusion of increasing "efficiency" in labor, when, in fact, this "efficiency" has been achieved through the wildly inefficient use of energy from the burning of fossil fuels. That inefficiency is the reason we are burning through so much fossil fuel so fast and creating climate change and depletion problems. (I am indebted to Nate Hagens for this insight.)

So, here I would like to propose a check on every "miracle" technology we are expecting in the future to do everything from making work optional (robots) to solving the climate problem (scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide). If the proponent of any yet-to-be-invented or yet-to-be-widely-deployed technology cannot explain where he or she will get all the energy needed to run it at scale in ways that 1) won't destroy the climate and 2) are in accordance with the known laws of physics, you should be very skeptical that it will ever be widely used.

A society that is ruined by climate change will cease to be technologically adept. So far, the best information we have about how to avoid a climate catastrophe is summed up in two principles: 1) Stop emitting greenhouse gases and 2) stop destroying things such as forests which absorb them.

Many of the technofixes which I've seen such as scrubbing the atmosphere of excess carbon involve enormous energy use. I know that the fantasists will protest that we will do all the things we want to do with "clean" energy. They must believe we have a lot longer for such an energy transition than we actually do. And, they likely don't understand the vast differences in energy density between fossil fuels and renewable energy. So far, "clean" renewable energy is only adding to our capacity rather than replacing our existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

The human imagination is an amazing thing. Its expression in literature, music and art can delight us and also be a mirror for our deepest selves. But it can lead us as well to mistake all our internal yearnings--for love, power and excitement--for external possibilities that have technological solutions which may not be possible or which may have serious downsides.

I am not trying to stop innovation. I am only trying to distinguish helpful innovation that betters our chances of survival and increases our overall quality of life from that which only sends us further down the road of climate instability and resource depletion and thus puts our very survival as a species at stake.

Fracking and health: What we know from Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom

Originally posted on

Written by Sara G. RasmussenBrian S. Schwartz, and Joan A. Casey

The fracking industry has been an energy success story: Natural gas prices have decreased as fracking has skyrocketed, and natural gas now produces more electricity than coal does, which has resulted in improved air quality. The first states to begin unconventional natural gas development with fracking have cited potential economic, energy and community benefits.

Yet early on, communities where fracking spread raised doubts. Nearby residents reported a variety of common symptoms and sources of stress. Public health professionals trumpeted their concerns, and epidemiologists launched health studies of the industry. States like Pennsylvania, where almost 10,000 wells have been drilled since 2005, continued development. But other states, including Maryland and New York, have not permitted drilling because of the potential for environmental and health impacts.

Tensions between economic development, energy policy and environmental and health concerns are common in public health’s history. Often, economic and energy development trump environmental and health concerns, leaving public health playing “catch-up.”

Indeed, only recently have rigorous health studies on the impact of unconventional natural gas development on health been completed. We have published three studies, which evaluated birth outcomesasthma exacerbations and symptoms, including nasal and sinus, fatigue and migraine headache symptoms. These, together with other studies, form a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas development is having detrimental effects on health. Not unexpectedly, the oil and gas industry has countered our findings with pointed criticism.

Which exposures and health outcomes to study?

The process of fracking involves vertical and horizontal drilling, often for more than 10,000 feet below the surface, followed by the injection of millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand at high pressures. The liquids create fissures that release the natural gas in the shale rock.

As fracking became commercially viable, oil and gas drilling companies entered communities with shale gas resources, which can have a number of local effects. Communities near fracking operations can experience noise, light, vibration and truck traffic, as well as airwater and soil pollution. The rapid development of the industry can also lead to social disruptionhigher crime rates and anxiety.

These vary during the different phases of well development and have different scales of impact: Vibration may affect only people very close to wells, whereas stress from, for example, concerns about possible water contamination may have a wider reach. Other sources of stress can be an influx of temporary workers, seeing industrial development in what used to be a rural area, heavy truck traffic and concerns about declining home prices.


A study found higher rates of asthma for people who lived near bigger or a larger number of unconventional gas wells. asthma via

We have now completed several health studies in partnership with the Geisinger Health System, which provides primary care to over 450,000 patients in Pennsylvania, including many residing in fracking areas. Geisinger has used an electronic health record system since 2001, allowing us to get detailed health data from all patient encounters, including diagnoses, tests, procedures, medications and other treatments during the same time frame as fracking developed.

For our first electronic health record-based studies, we selected adverse birth outcomes and asthma exacerbations. These are important, are common, have short latencies and are conditions patients seek care for, so they are thus well-documented in the electronic health record.

We studied over 8,000 mother-child pairs and 35,000 asthma patients. In our symptom study, we obtained questionnaires from 7,847 patients about nasal, sinus and other health symptoms. Because symptoms are subjective, they are not well-captured by an electronic health record and are better ascertained by questionnaire.

In all studies, we assigned patients measures of unconventional natural gas development activity. These were calculated using distance from the patient’s home to the well, well depth and production, and dates and duration of the different phases.

Our findings and how confident we are in them

In the birth outcome study, we found increased odds of preterm birth and suggestive evidence for reduced birth weight among women with higher unconventional natural gas development activity (those closer to more and bigger unconventional wells), compared with women with lower unconventional natural gas development activity during pregnancy.

In the asthma study, we found increased odds among asthma patients of asthma hospitalizations, emergency department visits and a medication used for mild asthma attacks with higher unconventional natural gas development activity, compared to those with lower activity. Finally, in our study of symptoms, we found patients with higher unconventional natural gas development activity had higher odds of nasal and sinus, migraine headache and fatigue symptoms compared to those with lower activity. In each analysis, we controlled for other risk factors for the outcome, including smoking, obesity, and comorbid conditions.


Flaring at a fracked well in northwestern Pennsylvania. One potential cause of health problems, such as asthma, in communities with fracking is higher rates of air pollution. wcn247/flickrCC BY-NC

Psychosocial stress, exposure to air pollution including truck traffic, sleep disruption and changes to socioeconomic status are all biologically plausible pathways for unconventional natural gas development to affect health. We hypothesize that stress and air pollution are the two primary pathways, but in our studies, we cannot yet determine which are responsible for the associations we observed.

As epidemiologists, our data can rarely prove that an exposure caused a health outcome. We do, however, perform additional analyses to test if our findings are robust and eliminate the possibility that another factor we did not include was the actual cause.

In our studies, we looked at differences by county to understand whether there were just differences in the people who live in counties with and without fracking. And we repeated our studies with other health outcomes we would not expect to be affected by the fracking industry. In no analyses did we find results that suggested to us that our primary findings were likely to be biased, which gives us confidence in our results.

Other research groups have published on pregnancy and birth outcomesand symptoms, and the evidence suggests that the fracking industry may be affecting health in a range of ways. Over time, the body of evidence has gotten clearer, more consistent and concerning. However, we would not expect all studies to exactly agree, because, for example, the drilling practices, underlying health conditions and other factors likely differ in different study areas.

How has the industry responded?

Often the industry states that unconventional natural gas development has improved air quality. When describing emissions for the entire United States, this may be true. However, such statements ignore studies that suggest fracking has worsened local air quality in areas undergoing unconventional natural gas development.

A common retort by the industry is that rates of the health outcome studied – whether it’s asthma or preterm birth – are lower in fracking areas than in areas without fracking, or that the rate of the outcome is decreasing over time.

A study of increases or decreases in rates of a disease across years, calculated for groups of people, is called an ecologic study. Ecologic studies are less informative than studies with data on individual people because relationships can exist at the group level that do not exist among individuals. This is called the ecologic fallacyFor example, ecologic studies show a negative association between county-level average radon levels and lung cancer rates, but studies of individuals show strong positive associations between exposure to radon gas and lung cancer.

One reason we used individual-level data in our peer-reviewed studies was to avoid the problem of the ecologic fallacy. So the rates highlighted by industry do not provide any evidence that our findings are invalid.

It’s worth noting that the fracking industry’s practices have improved. One example is the flaring of wells, which is a source of air, noise and light pollution, and has decreased dramatically in recent years. Drilling has also substantially slowed because of the dramatic decline in natural gas prices.

What to consider for the future

All energy choices have positive and negative aspects. Maryland in particular has a decision to make, as its moratorium on fracking ends in October 2017.

We must monitor the industry with ongoing health studies and perform more detailed exposure measurements by, for example, measuring noise and air pollution levels. If we understand why we are seeing associations between the fracking industry and health problems, then we can better inform patients and policymakers.

In the meantime, we would advise careful deliberation about future decisions about the industry to balance energy needs with environmental and public health considerations.

Surplus, Part 3: How Surplus (Wealth) is Created

Originally posted on 

Written by Conference Speaker Erik Lindberg

This is Part 3 of a 3 part series on the concept of surplus.  Surplus is one of the most central features of modern industrial and democratic societies.  In fact it is so central and its permanence so taken for granted that it is scarcely noticed and even less understood.  The following installations are my attempt to discuss several of its facets, for the slow disappearance of surpluses, I think,is the cause of great bewilderment.

The ethos of the previous two installments of “On Surplus” might be summed up with a few lines from Thoreau: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior.  What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

 What demon indeed?

I have emphasized in parts 1 and 2 the aspects of my life and the life of my family that sits on the outer cusp of the high-surplus life which is characteristic of the middle class, a class that is also on the decline.  More people, I am suggesting, are being pushed from the world of ultra high-surplus and will no longer be able to engage in its brand of good behavior.  The choice for us on cusp is either to hang on by our fingernails (in between using them to pull outlaw dandelions), or to repent for our previous “good” bourgeois behavior as we reject the American Dream before it abandons us--the dream, as Roosevelt once put it, of ever increasing “enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”  The promise of America: you will have more wealth each and every year.  For reasons few have yet to comprehend, let alone to accept, America can no longer keep this promise.


Despite my subtle signs of rebellion (look how my squash garden has expanded since my last installment) and a radical pose I sometimes strike, I do have some repenting to do for previous good behavior.  For there was a time in my past when I was a model maker of surplus, which I produced with the grim determination of a honey badger, but also with devilish delight in my own sense of my limitless capacity (my body would not age just as the world would never run out of oil).  The demon that possessed me was the demon of residential asphalt shingling.  I roofed houses.  As others familiar with roofing know, it is a demon of a job, hot as Hades, with high risks and high rewards, where an eighteen-year old can sell his knees to the devil and where manic speed and feverish effort rule the day.  Because of its highly repetitive artless nature, and relative lack of complexity, nailing shingles is one of those things in life where effort and the expendeture of energy, alone, appear to be the source of surplus.   As a roofer, I was a frenzied producer of surplus, a true model for an entrepreneurial economy based on hard work and bold risks.

While I had previously delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, and detassled corn, my first direct experience with actual surplus, began when I started roofing as a fourteen year-old.  The story of how I came to be a roofer is interesting enough, I think, and indicative of a very particular, but telling, American experience as well, so I will share more of this story below.  But for now let me note that my years as a self-employed production roofer taught me a number of economic lessons that appear to be missing from the main public discourse about economics, and thus about where surplus, and therefore wealth, come from.  Economics, to jump ahead, is at root far simpler than it is made out to be.  For in reality, it is a matter of using energy to turn raw materials into useful products.  Creating surplus, and then ever greater surpluses, is a matter of using more energy to turn more raw materials into more useful products.  There isn’t much else to it than that.   Or as Charles hall and David Murphy explain, “for an economy to sustain real growth over time there must be an increase in the flow of net energy (and material) through the economy.”[i]  That is another way of putting it.

The Idealists

Let us backtrack and recall the larger context of these essays on the topic of surplus.  We are asking where wealth (surplus) comes from, and for this particular reason: if we don’t know where it comes from, we will be looking in the wrong places for cures and culprits alike in the event that our wealth disappears—which, I am suggesting, it is.  As I have been arguing, our economic and political discourse is, unfortunately, custom- made for misapprehending the real origins of wealth and instead finding political villains to blame for its waxing and waning over the years, and now, finally its slow but inescapable disappearance.  Until we as a nation can get our heads around the fact that there may be no simple political (blame-based) solution to the end of the American Dream, our politics can only head further down the path being blazed by Donald Trump today.

Because the origin of surplus and wealth are quite simple, the fact, moreover, that few are able to identify its fundamental basis has a lot to do with the way wealth is discussed in our politics, university courses, and in even the best mainstream journalism.   So let us look briefly at the (misleading) discussion about the origins of wealth and explanations for its occasional decline that one is likely to hear, today, unless he or she is quite persistent in pursuit of a true alternative.

While the issue of the economy has never been too far from the main political discussion of the day, starting with Reagan politics and economics became inseparable.   We are told to ask ourselves whether we are better off now than we were four years agobefore we cast our vote.   To cite that unfortunate cliché that passes itself off as good political wisdom, “it’s the economy, stupid.” The cause of our preoccupation with economics and the economy is rather simple: our national prosperity (or at least our assurance of its permanence) began to disappear sometime in the 1970s.  Reagan’s driving question—when he wasn’t bating the USSR or blowing dog whistles to the constituency first assembled for Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”—was the same as ours:  Where does wealth come from?; but his question was also different.  Like any American politician able to rise above the school board, he insisted on principle that our prosperity is a kin to a divine right, and will, if we are properly faithful, increase into perpetuity.  His question, then, has to do with the details of this faith and its rituals. 

Here’s how Reagan asks and answers this question in his first inaugural address:

If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.  Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth.  The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.

Often endorsed by conservative economists, Reagan offers a little morality tale about free people with the natural incentive of self-interest; they will, if allowed, prosper, and in so doing will create wealth for themselves and opportunity for everyone.  Only a dispirited populace, and bad laws and regulations--and the erosion of values and spirit that bad laws and regulations cause--might get in the way of the wealth-creating destiny that stands before free and faithful people. 

On the flip side of this formula is the warning that wherever and whenever people have not created wealth, it is, by necessity, because they were not sufficiently free.  If too many people have been swallowed by their couches or are milling about the welfare office, it is only because we (or rather the government) have removed too much incentive and curtailed the freedom to compete on the open market and be rewarded accordingly.  Reagan thus continues:

It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

We could further boil it down like this:  How did America create so much wealth in the past?  The hard work of a free people unleased and left to themselves.  Why has this prosperity not grown as it should in recent years?  Because people are not as free as they once were (mainly because of regulations and taxation).  From here it is a short jump to question, unfortunately, we’re really asking in this country once political discussions start heating up: Who took my money?  The conservative answer: the government took your money with high taxes, thus curtailing freedoms and burdening people with regulations.  This ultimately created a culture with declining incentive and increasing dependency.  Welfare queens and hamstrung “job creators.”  And now immigrants as well.  Inequality, George Will declared in an infamous article at the time and again as recently as 2015, is good for the economy, for it at once ensures that the elite are fairly rewarded, while providing a shimmering example for everyone else to pursue.  Inequality, argues Will, is what has driven the American economy from its outset.

There is a sense in which a liberal like Paul Krugman might appear to explain the origins of America’s great wealth according to an opposite view of history.  Looking at the arc of economic history which reached a peak in overall wealth and democratic well-being in the post-war era, Krugman argues that our most prosperous times occurred when there was relative income equality; income inequality, the very thing that the Reagan emphasis on low taxes and unfettered freedom will cause (and that George Will will celebrate), in contrast, has historically resulted in recessions and depressions.  Political scientists refer to this post war era of egalitarian prosperity as “the Great Compression”—a compression of wages into a relatively egalitarian center.   The Great Compression, Krugman summarizes, “was also a time of unprecedented prosperity, which we have never been able to recapture.”[ii]   

What forces lay behind this great compression and its demise?  Was it technology?  Deep structural changes in production or trade?  An ineluctable business cycle?  No. According to Krugman it was first created by our conscious choices, policy, and more specifically the high-tax rates that found their origin in Roosevelt’s new deal and wartime economy, but have abandoned since.  It was a result, moreover, of the liberal willingness to invest in public works, job training, the GI Bill, and all the other programs that Reagan and other conservatives equate with a loss of freedom and with economic decline.  To the question, who took my money?  Krugman would argue that the rich took it by refusing to pay their fair share of our collective tax burden, and that Reagan and his ilk pulled-off this heist under the banner of unfettered economic freedom and a counter-factual pro-growth theory of economics.

Who is correct?  If I had to choose, I would gravitate towards Krugman’s view, but for moral rather than historical reasons.  My guess is that inequality and equality both have played a crucial role, at times, in our economic history, but never, I would add, the leading role (about this I will say more below).  Of course neither Reagan’s nor Krugman’s position provides a comprehensive understanding of where wealth really comes from in all its many aspects.  Rather both sides are reacting to what they perceive as the excesses of the other.

For a more comprehensive, and in some ways admirable explanation of the origins of increased wealth and surplus since around 1820, we might turn to William Bernstein’s The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created.


This book articulates what both sides believe in-common, while correcting the way political arguments might narrow the broader range of history to a single point or campaign message.  For according to Bernstein the wealth of nations and basic human welfare require four factors: “property rights, scientific rationalism, effective capital markets, and efficient transport and communications.”  More familiar subcategories lie within each of these main four factors.  Property rights, for instance, includes equality under the law and the important provision that the fruits of one’s labor cannot be arbitrarily taken away from an entrepreneur.  This is a prerequisite for incentive.  Scientific rationalism is necessary for the constant innovation we have come to expect, and underwrites a pragmatic and technocratic view towards accumulation, while effective capital markets include a secure and intact banking system and agreed-upon laws of trade.  Transportation and communication are necessary for the sort of trade that, beginning with Adam Smith, is viewed as an essential component of the wealth of nations; as a minor subcategory Bernstein includes the explosive power of coal and then oil and natural gas as the power behind our efficient transportation and communication systems.

Although meant as a comprehensive history, I also take Bernstein’s purpose to be directed towards liberals and conservatives alike who want to over-simplify economic success into one single feature like incentive, or deregulation, or who might fail to value the necessity of a balanced approach lost to popular consciousness by our current situation of permanent campaigning.  As Bernstein summarizes it, “The absence of even one of these factors endangers economic progress and human welfare; kicking out just one of these four legs will topple the platform upon which the wealth of nations rests.  This occurred in eighteenth-century Holland with the British naval blockade, in the world’s Communist states with the loss of property rights, and in much of the Middle East with the absence of capital markets and Western rationalism.  Most tragic of all, in much of Africa, all four factors are still essentially absent” (17).  Thus also the unquestioned goal of economic development: import our institutions and belief system; undo cultural traditions that put limits on consumption or the making of money; break down any race or gender barriers to consumption.  As Bernstein puts it, the only thing that could cause the one thousand year reich of economic growth is a slackening of demand and access.

I won’t say too much right now about the shortcomings of Bernstein’s explanation, which I have written about in previous pieces.  Briefly, though, part of it boils down to his failure to take the “long view of history” I described it in Part II.  Bernstein believes that premodern and pre-industrial life lacks basic human welfare, and at the same time believes that modern prosperity and our high surpluses are permanent, if only we pay attention to the four pillars of wealth.  These, he explains, are like a key that has unlocked the secret door to wealth; and once unlocked wealth will rush forth like a swollen river.  A thousand years from now, he predicts, the economy will still be growing and humanity will be yet more wealthy (and well-off, even happy).   He is suggesting, without thinking through the implications, that there are no limits to how much surplus humans can amass. 

The other half of Bernstein’s shortcomings can be described by returning to the title of this section, “The Idealists.”  Despite considerable differences, especially between Krugman and Reagan (liberals and conservatives) they share with Bernstein and almost any other prominent economist or economic approach what I will refer to as an Idealist view of history. 

In common parlance, an idealist is someone with strong beliefs about the possibility of a better world—the opposite, in other words, of a realist or a cynic.  This is not the way I am using the term idealism here.  I am using the concept more philosophically, where historical views are often divided between idealism on one hand, and materialism, which in this context does not refer to the love of materials accumulation, on the other.  Let me explain.  In philosophical contexts, or in theories of political change, Idealism refers to the belief that ideas are the driver of history.  A good society, in other words, is the product of good ideas or ideals.  We are who we are, and have what we have, because of our beliefs and the institutions that consecrate those beliefs.  Because, according to our lore, America was founded on a set of principles and beliefs, America is an overwhelmingly Idealist nation (in the philosophical sense).  As Margaret Thatcher is said to have quipped, Europe was created by history while America was created by Philosophy,[iii] the implication being that we Americans have taken history into our own hands and formed it into a shape modeled after our ideals, while Europe was less “proactive” and was buffeted by historical forces which it hadn’t the ability to control.  In this way Reagan would argue that America is great because of our celebration and practice of unfettered freedom, and becomes less great when we sacrifice the ideal of freedom; Krugman would argue that equality and appropriate government investment is what made America great and that we become less great when we sacrifice this ideal.  Both explicitly argued that we could return to our peak prosperity simply be returning to our ideals.  As Krugman exclaims as he declares that past prosperity is well within our grasp today, “we did it before so there is no reason we couldn’t do it again.”  That’s the nice thing about ideals, as compared to history.  Ideals are infinitely repeatable under almost any conditions; history is far trickier and more complex.[iv] 

Materialism is most closely associated with Marx, but it doesn’t have to have a Marxist orientation.  It maintains that the material conditions of people’s lives—whether they live in a place abundant in natural resources, or with a tradition of conquest and material opportunity—has a great deal to do with what they believe and whether or not they thrive.  Materialists are often accused of being relativist, but I think the word “contingent” is far more appropriate.  What you believe, how and what you worship, your views about the individual and its relation to the community—these have more to do with where and when you live, how you feed yourself, and what ecological pressures you face than they do with autonomous beliefs.  Materialists are skeptical of the “fantasy” (I would say) that people sit down, consider their options, and then choose what to believe.  Not only is this a poor way of explainingthe customs and rituals of the Kalahari Bushmen, it is (because materialism has a built in humility) inappropriate to apply to ourselves.  We too are products of our age and our place and believe what we do largely because of what we do, what opportunities we see, and where we get our food and shelter. 

But very few people, and none with much power of an extensive audience, question Idealism these days, even though there is a growing materialist subtext in almost any reputable sociological study or attitude.  About the power of ideals and the institutions built in their image, Bernstein declares, “build it and they will come”: “once a nation has reached that stage [where it adopts and embraces the four pillars of wealth], it has broken the chains of poverty.  Economic growth, if you will,[v]becomes encoded into its very culture” (49).   Citing Keynes famous “disquition on the importance of economic ideas” at the end of The General Theory, Krugman directly expresses his own Idealism: “the true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.”  More Idealistic, yet, is Krugman’s finishing flourish: “some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men” (The Return of Depression Economics 191).  We need only follow our ideals, in other words, and the world might by our oyster.

We need to pause and consider this phrase and the assumptions standing behind it.  One of the most respected voices of American liberalism is arguing in as direct a way as possible that ideas create wealth and thus surplus.  In his weekly column, he mainly elaborates on this theme in mainly predictable ways and creates a great deal of take-home wealth for himself in the process.  Like Bernstein, he cannot imagine any instance in which there could be a cause of economic decline, at least in nations that have broken the ancient chains of poverty, not caused by “obsolete doctrines.”  As Bernstein affirms, the only thing that could put an end to permanent economic growth, even for one thousand years, would be a failure of will; ecological or demographic forces could not put an end to the ever accumulation of greater surpluses (375).

If, as I am arguing, wealth is a matter of using energy to turn raw materials into useful products, this is an astounding claim, from people, I dare say, who never roofed a house—or worked as a logger, miner, or in the field of heavy industry.  From this latter more material perspective, with lungs filled with dust, ears pounding from constant noise, and head swimming from heat exhaustion, all idealist doctrines are obsolete.  Only pushing-on, with great energy, resources (and waste) might we maintain our surpluses; and sometimes that is not possible.

Rooftop Materialism

So back to my story of roofing.  My father, as I have previously discussed, was a university professor, but also a renaissance man with a number of talents and interest, and an irrepressible sense that he could figure anything out for himself, which for better and for worse--and for richer and for poorer—was passed down to me.  When I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, he determined that we needed a new roof on our house.  After receiving a couple of hours of instruction from an out-of-work union carpenter we knew, my dad could see that installing asphalt shingles did not take a whole lot of skill and he proceeded to put me and my older sister to work.  Hammering together for a few weeks, and learning as we went, we put a new roof on our house.

I was of the age, then, at which I was interested in having my own income--and both my father and I, entrepreneurs and opportunists by nature, saw the potential in roofing, or at least were to over the next few years.  Did I go seek employment with an established roofing company?  Of course not.  We were to Thoreauian for that.  We decided instead to start our own roofing company.  The next summer, at any rate, family friends who were financially struggling also needed a new roof, so we plied our newly learned skills on top of their house.  Another neighbor saw what we were doing, and asked if we could do their roof as well.  I don’t recall when, exactly, Lindberg & Son Roofing was formally born, but I do know that the following summer we did about six roofs as I took on more and more of the actual work myself, and that I hammered-out about twelve roofs the next summer, and about twenty the year after that.

The entrepreneurial part of the endeavor came pretty easily, or at least I remember it as such.  But the work was physically hard and involved masses of materials—thousands of pounds of waste into a dumpster, eighty pound bundles of shingles, up and down the ladders, a basic rain shedding covering for a family’s material possessions.  The part of me that believes effort will always prevail--and that has thus made impressive mistakes amidst a heady brew of ambition and overshoot, unchecked enthusiasm and great bursts of energy--was forged by hours of hammering in rooftop heat where temperatures can easily climb to 120 degrees.  To be honest about it, the roof was my masculine proving-grounds, and probably the scene of Oedipal overcoming; there was no alienation on the roof, at any rate, none of the complications that beset a philosophically-minded adolescent; there was just me and the scorching sun, racing the clock, battling fatigue, feeling tough, strong, and tan.  I believed myself an all-powerful and unstoppable roofing machine, and was rewarded for my endurance and effort with more money than a teenager should ever make.  By the time I was in college, I was hiring friends to work with me, and “Lindberg & Son Roofing” was pounding out a roof per day, sometimes even two.  During the summer after I graduated from college, the record-breaking hot and dry year of 1988, we did about seventy-five roofs in three months and I left home in September for a year of reading and surplus debauchery in Minneapolis with about thirty-thousand fresh dollars in my pocket and an even larger sheaf of life-lessons, both true and false.

One of the lessons I have alluded to was based on the fact that in roofing effort and energy expended can (if you are paid by output and not hourly) be roughly equivalent to income, for production roofing is about speed.  If you can increase your speed from about 1 square (one hundred square feet) per hour to about 4 squares per hour, your income might go from $20/hr. to $80.  To the extent that life is like a roof (which it both is and isn’t) this was a valuable lesson about energy--and surplus.  As the owner of the means of production, I extracted surplus value from my crew, which got paidan hourly rate that represented only a portion of the money their work brought in.  I took the rest.  This is the essence of capitalism, and my roofing experience made Marx easy for me to understand.

I have skipped until now a key episode in this story--one which speaks directly to the issue of energy and economics, and a two-century trend towards increased automation.  When I first started roofing, like everyone else at the time, I hand-nailed shingles, four roofing nails per shingle, each one driven in with a single well-aimed blow.  There was a skill to this, and learning to do it quickly and efficiently contained some satisfaction of the sort shared by people who effortlessly toss pizza dough, lay bricks, or balance trays full of steaming food on a single arm.  When I was just getting serious about roofing, I had the chance to talk to some older, lifetime roofers, who told me that a square an hour was a good rate for putting down asphalt.  I immediately began timing myself.  I dedicated myself, simply by moving faster and using more practiced and repetitive motions, to become faster and faster--to the point where I could easily average around a square and a half per hour over a whole roof.   I was a child of my time (the 80s), and the goal of course was to make more money (it was no wonder that I could always afford the best pot); but there was more to it than just that.

But around that time, I started waking up in the middle of the night with my fingers tingling and my shoulder aching.  At work, some days, the fingers in my right hand would go numb as I swung the hammer, over and over again.  A trip to the doctor revealed a condition I had never heard of before, but which is now commonly understood—carpel tunnel syndrome.  With too much repetitive motion and percussion the tendons in the wrist swell, cutting off blood to the nerve running through the same “tunnel” on its way to the fingers.  I had to stop pounding--that was the only cure.

At the same time, as fate would have it, pneumatic roofing nailers were finally becoming reliable.  Earlier models had jammed too often.  That, along with their expense, made them unable to compete with a skilled hand-nailer.  The $1000 I invested in a couple of nailers and a compressor was a huge investment for tiny Lindberg & Son Roofing, but I soon realized that I could increase my rate from about a square anhour to four or five squares per hour.  As I raced my previous best times, flying across the roofs with a seventeen-year old’s energy augmented by compressed air and a simple machine, I amused myself by calculating how much I had earned in the last fifteen minutes.  Speed was all that mattered, and now it could be achieved at previously unimaginable rates, with a decrease in required skill.  A thirty square roof that used to take two or three days could now be done in half a day.

Of course the pneumatic nailer didn’t solve the carpel tunnel syndrome.  Rather, because I used the nail gun ambidextrously, I eventually had to have surgery on both wrists, aggrevated all the more because of the increased percussive rate that automation made possible.  The money was too good to let a little bit of bodily harm get in the way, a feature common to certain parts of our economy that middle-class people are generally shielded from.  Add to this the fact that, armed with nailer, any of my friends could put down a square or two an hour with just a little practice got my greedy little brain buzzing and led to a ridiculous earning power for a dumb young roofer with a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and no real sense of risk.  (They are not kidding when they say that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until around age 30!)

A sociological treatise could be written about the way pneumatic nailers and other similar automation led to changes in American roofing, and all home building as well.   It temporarily increased the earning power of early adopters like me, but within a decade, pricing adjusted to the now normal higher rate of output.  In the meantime, crews became smaller and there was a distinct loss of craft.[vi]  Fast roofing, like fast food, did open-up the profession and made entry into it far easier, though with an equivalent fall in wages.  With increased automation, whether in food service, homebuilding, agriculture, or factory work, society can create even more surplus, what with two roofers accomplishing in a day what used to take six.  And, to the benefit of the remaining but shrinking middle-class, it also creates a larger class of lower-paid unskilled workers who, because of this general lack of skill, are unable to demand a fair share of the surplus that they and their broken bodies actually create; whether we are talking about roofers and miners, or all the waitresses, housecleaners, busboys, and landscapers servicing the rich, I was a front row participant in Marx’s growing mobile army of surplus labor.

 As a society, and an economy, I should point out, we bank entirely too much on the sort of transition towards increased automation that I participated in; we suppose that they might continue forever.  At the same time, we forget how fleeting an advantage they provide, before society sinks back into a new normal,  perhaps more losers than winners hanging in the revised balance, and nothing more to show for it except higher expectations-- unless the universal affordability of useless plastic junk from China is viewed as progress.   But beyond the social-justice implications, by abstracting the process of using energy to turn raw materials into useful goods, turning it into concepts like “automation,” “technology,” and “efficiency,” we forget the true source of our collective wealth.  And having forgotten this, thus focusing on marginally effective policies and moral principles like self-sufficiency or the work ethic, or public investment in infrastructure and differing tax rates, we are unable to understand how it is that our wealth and surplus may be in decline.  Ideas, our economists love to tell us, are “the ultimate renewable resource.”   But the energy and raw materials from which our surplus is actually derived, are not. 

The Supply Side

As I argued in Part 2, most of the “jobs” that middle class people have, have little to do with the actual production of surplus.  In fact, as I mentioned, many of my Shorewood neighbors believe on some unconscious level that production should be kept from sight.  No one says it out loud, but attitudes held by middle class people, including university professors,  sometimes implyin some vague way that productions shouldn’t have to happen at all, except maybe by “creatives” armed with a 3d printer in a converted loft somewhere.   Polite bourgeois society is about consumption, and it differentiates itself  from other, rougher or more ostentatious, parts of society mainly by way of “thoughtful” or “tasteful” or “moderate” consumption.  This of course includes media and even political consumption.  Most middle-class people are of course managers of surplus and its complexities, or are engaged in various amusements or edifications that a high-level of societal surplus permits. 

My favorite example, recall, is the humanities professor on sabbatical, taking time away from the teaching of other future humanities professors to think about truth and meaning—which, if done with integrity, will not actually help society create more surplus, but would probably incite a personal protest, at the very least, regarding the sick and broken nature of our world.  For true contemplation must take into account the raping and pillaging of the Earth and its meekest inhabitants as the source of our surplus, and thus the source of the university, and thus the source of the cherished sabbatical year.  No one wants to cut off the limb they are sitting on, but a profound dedication to truth and justice looks past such self-harming inconveniences.

Of course part of this is sour grapes, and it is easy to talk about cutting-off branches when I haven’t one to sit on in the first place.  And in truth, I should be more focused in my criticisms on the surplus luxuries enjoyed in corporate America or by the non-elected political class (i.e. lobbyists, etc) whose daily lives are supported by teams of personal concierges wherever across the globe some or another pet project takes them.  But because the writing and thinking class lives in closer proximity to that, yet more splendiferous, way of life than to the life of a roofer or housecleaner, our official doctrines tend to ignore the way our economy really works, focusing instead on the policies that help or hurtthe 20%’s project of squeezing a little more surplus out of the system.  True, the world of finance, consumer demand, future projections and the resulting bets and hedges can have a great deal of marginal impact on the way we produce and share our surplus.  But assumed without question is that, as long as it is financed properly and there is a market for its products, the invisible world in which energy is used to turn raw materials into useful goods might go on and on without missing a beat—never mind the current state of our energy supplies, raw material reserves, or the atmosphere in which we dump our waste.

A symptom of this way of looking at the economy might identified by noting the latest projections and pronouncements coming out of China regarding its long-term economic aspirations.  China’s economy is a vast and probably irreplaceable source of the supply of all the things consumers want and demand.  In short, most Americans and Europeans pursue “good jobs,” and demand a stable credit market and sensible monetary policy, so that we can trade our money in for the things that are supplied by Chinese factories, and of course those throughout the industrialized world.  (Our “consumer confidence” to be fair about it, also predicts whether we will take out loans, buy new houses, put on an addition, or take a vacation, in addition to buying lots of stuff from China and other places where things are made.)

Because of the “demands” of its own rising middle-class, China wants to move towards an economy based more on consumer spending and on services, than on heavy industry—on having rather than making.  This sounds all well and good to us, because we too have made a transition from an industrial society to a consumer society, where we buy industrial goods mainly from other places, and are more likely to be employed as regional supply managers, Ponzi scheme operators, or marriage counselors.  Most of us don’t make anything.  But this doesn’t mean we don’t want lots and lots of made products.  The Chinese simply want to do same thing we have, and what with all the pollution and terrible working conditions they suffer, who can blame them?

Lost in this sense that a consumer economy is about consuming—period--is the simple fact that we developed our consumer-based service economy only by offshoring much of our industry to China (and by convincing them that doing our dirty work was an improvement on subsistence farming) so that we could cut labor costs and open thousands of new Walmarts and Targets.  The foundational industrial and productive, surplus-creating, part of the economy still exists—only now it is mainly out of sight.  No matter what Mark Zuckerberg says about our “knowledge economy,” heavy industry still exists and is necessary for us to pretend that wealth is created by inventing new apps.   As Zuckerberg puts it, revealing his alarmingly narrow scope of vision and understanding, “The economy of the last century was primarily based on natural resources, industrial machines and manual labor. . . . Today’s economy is very different. It is based primarily on knowledge and ideas — resources that are renewable and available to everyone.”  (lol)

Zuckerberg’s remarks are of course made in ignorance of my central point, here: that facebook and the free time required to become a nation of narcissists exist, in the first place, only if we can collectively produce tremendous amounts of food and industrial products with just a fraction of our time and energy, and consequently still have lots of time and energy left over to sit around searching for the emoticon juste.  That is a far different point than the silly belief that the supply of food and industrial products is no longer the center of the economy.  If there is a knowledge economy, it is where leprechauns ride unicorns to hunt down witches and turn lead into gold.  If China wants to become a consumer society, in other words, it needs to offshore its production (and ours)—the creation of industrial supply—to somewhere else.  Unfortunately, there are a few remaining parts of the world that might be candidates for this sort of offshoring, and naturally the process cannot continue forever.  There is, of course Bangladesh, and maybe Myanmar.  And all of Africa still might be turned into one great sweatshop.  We can’t, of course, focus only on the production of our throwaway plastic party favors and 72” TV sets; the world also needs to maintain some very high-surplus agricultural areas throughout all of this “development.”  But what then?  What is the long term plan, here?  What are we going to do when there is no more “off-shore,” or when we realize that we are one people living on one finite planet?

The vision that sits behind nearly ever liberal utopia of an egalitarian middle class society is one in which everyone is somehow living off a surplus that no one actually creates—as if the supply of goods and food can be wished into existence as easily as a credit default swap or a new app that deposits checks automatically, or a marketing campaign that makes everyone desire and demand an Iphone 8.  Despite the admirable goal of turning the entire globe into Shorewood Wisconsin, an inconvenient truth remains: consumer societies need something to consume and these products need to be made somewhere.  Similarly, a “service economy” requires enough surplus production (and a way of convincingthe actual producers to share it with the non-producers) for a major part of the population to be free from actual production and instead be personal trainers, interior decorators, or landscape architects.     

Thermodynamic Economy

Atthe risk of repeating myself too many times, let me say once more that the process by which the goods that consumers want , and that must exist in high quantity for people to engage in non-industrial or agricultural “services,” (and thus be wealthy) is quite simple in its basic outline.  Workers take raw materials and use energy to turn the raw materials into something useful to humans.  The smaller the percentage of the population engaged in “necessary” production, the larger the percentage that can pursue luxuries.  This ratio lies at the center of all civilization and can be used to describe them and their level of wealth.[vii] 

But the question remains, what tilts this ratio in the direction of few creators of surplus with many users of surplus?  The question “where does wealth come from?” is a question about reducing the number of people or societal resources devoted to basic survival.  It turns out that this ratio, and thus the creation of wealth, surplus, and a polite and decent middle-class society is mainly dependent on one thing: it is dependent on the way and extent to which energy can be concentrated.  Energy concentration is the only real game in town; everything else is a derivative side-show.  This has been true since the beginning of humanity, and is still just as true if we are considering drilling for oil and growing soy beans as it was for the hunting of Buffalo and making arrowheads.  The name of the game has always been to concentrate energy so that a single person or group can make more goods or products in a given time.  Wealth is created when energy can be concentrated so that a society (or individual) has to spend a small amount of its own time and resources on necessities.  (We have migrated a good distance from Krugman’s “obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men” as the obstacle to universal wealth; or perhaps we are talking about precisely a sort of obsolete doctrine, though in a way that tosses Krugman’s belief system in with the other clutter and cultural detritus earmarked for history’s dustbin.)

This concentration of energy is often referred to as efficiency, a concept we will discuss shortly.   A few examples can help illustrate the significance of energy concentration.  A transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture is a way of concentrating solar energy.  Hunters and gatherers depend on the same sort of daily influx of solar energy as do farmers, only they must chase after the plants and animals that nourish them.  Useable solar energy, in other words, is spread throughout the forest or across the savannah.  But even then, like all living beings, hunters need to collect more energy in the kill than they expend in the hunt, and by quite a bit more.  As Charles Hall has calculated it, hunting and gathering societies receive 10 calories in return for every calorie they expend.  This ratio, between energy expended and energy obtained is the golden rule of societal development.  If a farmer expends more calories planting, weeding, and harvesting than the crop provides, he or she will likewise starve to death in rather short time.  But because farmers pen their animals in close thus eliminating the chase, and grow crops alongside their dwellings thus eliminating the energy expended in searching and gathering, they were often able to increase this return on energy invested ratio.  A farm is a sort of concentration of solar energy. 

The same ratio works to explain modern wealth, as long as wealth is understood as surplus. The great surpluses we enjoy depend on the fact that our farmers can yield not only more calories than they, themselves, expend; it is a based on the fact that they can yield more calories than the remaining 98% of society they also feed expends in all its endeavors.    Of course there are a variety other factors in play—like the simple ability to store a surplus for a sparse times, or whether you use your surplus to buildinfrastructure and new technology or opt for a shorter work week and the best wine and cheese, never mind where it will come from tomorrow.  Similarly, the “pillars” that Bernstein discusses do in fact need to be in place for a society to make full use of available surpluses that it might otherwise be unable to exploit.  But without a surplus of energy, these pillars remain unbuilt, even unconsidered.  

One might describe the transition from hunting and gathering to our current situation where 2% of Americans can feed all the rest of us as a matter of technology and efficiency—and what is technology, as we understand it, but a way of increasing efficiency, of getting more output per unit of input.  We might at this point reconsider my roofing story.  With the help of an air compressor, 100 feet of rubber hose, and a then $400 nail gun, I was able to quadruple my roofing output, and bonus of all bonuses, hire people who previously didn’t know which end of a hammer to hold and both pay them beyond their previous expectations while making all sorts of money from their work.  This was possible only as roofing gun technology improved and I could concentrate my energy into the pushing of a machine that was quicker than I was without it.  It should be of little wonder, then, that whenever the growth of surplus seems to stall (“a sluggish economy,” as they say), a great deal of hope is placed in new technologies that will provide us more output per unit of input.

But, at the same time, today, there is also a lot of unreflective head-scratching: our technologies have never been more highly developed; so why is it that we are having trouble simply treading water?  This brings us right back to our politics of befuddlement—the main sub-thesis of this series.  If our technologies are better than ever, the problem must be with us. . .  or rather with them, the other side.  It must be the declining work ethic, the policies that sap incentive and the drive for efficiency, or the ones that let our infrastructure decay and create inefficiencies there.  The problem is with kids, who don’t want to learn or work hard—or maybe with immigrants, who do.  That, at least, is what the best and brightest can come up with given all their other assumptions.

The real problem, however, can only be revealed if we look more closely at what we mean by efficiency and at the mammoth and embarrassing gross inefficiency that sits at the heart of our technological wizardry and our awe-inspiring productivity.  No one seems to notice this hidden inefficiency, even though it is certainly set to be the defining characteristic of our age.

The Great Inefficiency

There is a sense, as I have suggested, that efficiency is a matter of concentrating energy.  This may be true of all efficiency.  Even a sharp ax is a matter of concentrating the energy of the swing into a finer point.  But the history of efficiency isn’t just a matter of creating sharper and more durable tools so that we get more output out of human muscular input, it is also a matter of replacing human effort with that of animals and then machines.[viii]  Clearly a horse-drawn plow is more efficient, and creates more surplus, than a regular garden hoe, regardless of how sharp it is.  Equally clear is the way a tractor-drawn plow can outperform a team of horses, just as a pneumatic nailer can outperform hand-nailing.   Add in some synthetic fertilizer and some pesticides to increase crop-yields even further, and it only takes a few people to perform all our farming for us.   The same thing goes for just about any human-made product these days, almost all of which require far less human energy for their creation.  That, recall, leaves our energy “free” for other activities like making art, studying sociology, or watching TV.

But, as I suggested, there is a great deal of hidden overall inefficiency in this system of human efficiency.  I will hazard a proposition that would of course require further research, but that may nonetheless turn out to be true: namely, that we are the most inefficient civilization in the history of our species.  Our alleged efficiency has simply been hidden by a unique set of temporary conditions, the way a wasteful spender with a temporarily high income may still appear fiscally responsible.  Stagflation, Donald Trump, the shrinking of the middle class, The Great Recession, near 0% interest rates on bonds, crumbling infrastructure, Brexit—these are just a few symptoms of the disappearance of these unique conditions over the past 40 years or so.  To continue the metaphor, the temporarily high “income”—an income that I will discuss later—that has compensated for our inefficiency is being withdrawn.  Our gross, whole-system inefficiency, is, in the absence of our dwindling inheritance, windfall, or whatever we might call it, finally coming home to roost.  My stories of disappointment and loss in the first two installments are merely symptomatic of this gross inefficiency finally appearing for what it is. 

So what is this gross inefficiency of which I talk?  Here’s how I think it is best understood: when humans became more technologically savvy (or should we say dependent) across the broad sweep of history we became “efficient” or learned how to concentrate energy in two main ways.  First, we did make sharper axes, hotter ovens, lighter automobiles with less wasteful engines, and smaller computers with a high concentration of micro-chips.  We learned which metals, wood species, or plant varieties work best for different things.  But this sort of “intrinsic efficiency” is of lesser import when compared to what we might call “extrinsic efficiency”—namely, the replacement of human energy with other kinds of energy.[ix]  The first revolution in human energy replacement came with the domestication of animals for work, but the biggest and most significant replacement came during the industrial revolution, which Tony Wrigley has rightly referred to as an “energy revolution.”[x] Now, very suddenly and on an almost incalculable scale, human and animal energy fueled by direct sunlight and photosynthesis, was replaced by machine energy fueled by fossilized sunlight--or as we call them, coal, oil, and natural gas.  While it is true that the average human worker can now produce much more with much less personal effort, the overall level of energy we require is immense and historically unprecedented.   We do not use less energy to create more; we use different energy, and a lot more of it, to create more.


In contemporary modern societies we use unprecedented amounts of energy to maintain our civilization, feed and clothe ourselves, keep ourselves entertained and amused, and otherwise ward off the existential angst of life lived in the denial of our human finitude.   A pre-modern farmer, recall, had to be efficient and expend far fewer total calories of his or her energy than the crop would yield, and at a minimum rate of about 1/10.  The food we grow in America today is grown with a ratio approximately the reverse of our simple pre-modern farmer.  It requires an incredible 10 calories of energy (mainly in the form of oil) to grow a single calorie worth of food!  Talk about terrible inefficiency.  But it can be even worse with some kinds of food.  That side of beef you might put in your freezer—it took about one hundred and twenty gallons of diesel and gasoline to raise and process.  That gives it a negative calorie-in/calorie-out ratio of about 25/1, in addition to the unaccounted sunlight that also helps fuel the process.  This is probably fairly representative of our industrial inefficiency across the board.  It represents the energy that goes into making a modern hammer, pair of shoes, or a new house.   When I increased my roofing output from a square and a half per hour to a four squares an hour, I reduced my own caloric expenditure per square.  But I did not decrease the overall expenditure of energy from all sources, but rather increased it.  The only difference is that the coal that powered the electric plant that powered my air compressor was, at the time, far cheaper than the same number of human-based calories.   By drawing-down millions of years’ worth of fossilized sunlight, in other words, I was able to decrease the amount of energy drawn from living human beings and, for that matter, from the current influx of solar energy that would have been needed to grow food for a larger crew of hand-nailing roofers.

The only way our modern industrial system is efficient is if you look at the energy expended by humans and not at the total energy requirements of the arrangement.  To think or ourselves as efficient is like a Southern plantation owner bragging about his insanely efficient farming methods that allow him to spend half his day sipping iced-tea on his front porch, without mentioning the hundreds of slaves doing the work instead.  As it turns out, if we look at the energy diet of a modern middle-class American, we depend upon an equivalent output to about 150 slaves per person.  Without fossil fuels, in other words, your family of four would require 600 slaves to maintain something resembling its level of surplus.  While the use of fossil fuels represents an important sort of progress over the direct use of kidnapped humans, neither arrangement is sustainable.

Despite the fact that new efficiencies are framed as the centerpiece of a new “green knowledge economy,” they too often amount to the replacement of human labor with machine labor.  The fact that these machines are increasingly small but powerful hand-held computers mainly hides the incredible energy input that occurs in the vast supply chains that turns raw materials into Iphones and laptops, and the inefficient industrial food system that feeds all the genius programmers and entrepreneurs.  What I earlier referred to as “intrinsic efficiency” often has high extrinsic, off-the-books, “externalized” energy footprint.  True, there are no doubt instances where computerized work uses less total energy than human work, but these instances are rarer than the global marketing industry would have us believe.  It never gives usa glimpse, for instance, of the two hundred and twenty million tons of waste that the computer industry, alone, creates each year.  Like all types of supply, our time-saving apps are part of a surplus-creating system in which energy is used to turn raw materials found in nature into useful goods.

As a rule, then, the great surpluses we, in the modern world, enjoy involve the replacement of a moderate amount of human energy with great quantities of fossilized energy.[xi]  Every aspect of the great chain of surplus that characterizes our modern cosmology of consumption-- from the 2% of the population that does the farming,  to the industries that create consumer necessities, and then consumer luxuries, all the way to the “ultra-efficient” multinational that has managed to automate all of its data entry and storage or the advertisementagency that uses computerized graphics instead of hand-drawn ones—all of these create more surplus through the replacement of human energy with mechanical energy fed almost exclusively by fossil fuels.  This is anything but an efficient system.  It is instead the greatest arbitrage in the history of humanity.  No people have required as much energy to fulfill their daily “necessities” as we.

So what?, some may ask.  So we use more energy, but our technologies have at the same time made available nearly limitless sources of energy to keep the gyre spinning in ever widening cycles.  This is a great myth of our time and it is to this myth, along with some very important supporting myths, that I will turn to next.  But, more importantly, is the overriding question of this series, the reason we are asking where wealth comes from.  We ask this in order to understand our current situation and why, as I asked in Part 1, my generation does not have the material advantages and opportunities of my parents’ generation.   Why, amidst  so much technological development and the continued replacement of human power with machine power are we not still seeing increases in our overall levels of surplus, never mind how we divide it up?

In order to answer this question we must return to one we asked earlier: instead of asking where our high and growing levels of surplus disappeared to, we need to ask where they came from in the first place.  This is where we are headed next: how, now more specifically, was the post war generation, and perhaps the baby boomer generation, able to enjoy unprecedented and unrepeatable levels of surplus?  We have answered the question in principle, but need to fill in some blanks and explain why their arrangement is beginning to crumble.

Wild Democracy: A Biodiversity of Resistance and Renewal

Written by Community Solutions fellow Samuel Alexander

Originally posted on

I’ve just published a new Simplicity Institute Report, called “Wild Democracy: Resistance and Renewal”. The introduction is available below and the full report is available here

With characteristic insight, the great American philosopher, John Dewey, once wrote: ‘Every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself.’ His point was that, at each moment in history, citizens and nations inevitably face unique challenges and problems, so we should not assume the democratic institutions and practices inherited from the past will be adequate for the conditions of today. Our ongoing political challenge, therefore, is to ‘accomplish’ democracy anew, every generation. 

It seems we have forgotten Dewey’s lesson. Too often we assume instead that democracy is something that has been achieved already, once and for all. Why do we need to reinvent it? Indeed, in the wake of a recent federal election (in Australia), it is easy to be seduced back to the comfortable unfreedom of the shopping mall or withdraw into the existential numbness of social media or television, believing that, having voted, our political work is done. The task of governing is now in the hands of our so-called ‘representatives’. That’s what political participation means in a market capitalist society, doesn’t it?

This is, of course, an impoverished, even dangerous, conception of democracy, which we propagate by way of casual apathy at our own peril. It is government of the people, certainly, but not government by the people and increasingly not for the people. Accordingly, with a deferential nod to Dewey, below I offer an outline of a new political orientation, sensibility, and practice – a position I call ‘wild democracy’. In a global tide that seems to be drifting enthusiastically toward ecocide and fascism, wild democracy signifies a radical and participatory eco-egalitarian politics that seeks to take root beyond the tired parliamentary distinctions of Left and Right, but also beyond (and yet between) the antagonistic but enriching poles of anarchism and Marxism. As I will explain, wild democracy is a localised politics with a global perspective, positioning itself ‘in the wild’ beyond the state and yet, at times, pragmatically engaged with the state. In short, wild democracy is a revolutionary politics without a Revolution, as such – a paradox I will unpack and defend below.

The full report is available here.

Climate Change Begins Now (Even if We are Unprepared)

Originally posted on

Written by Community Salutations fellow Kurt Cobb

As record floods swept away whole villages in China and India in the month just past, I was reminded that climate change activist Bill McKibben likes to say, there is Earth and then there is Earth.

The first planet is the one most of us grew up on. It had a stable climate, generally friendly to bumper harvests; it was usually safe because of reasonable precautions against floods and droughts; and it was conducive to persistent economic growth that was supposed to lead to material prosperity for all.

Then there is Eaarth, a forbidding planet with a climate in chaos, one shifting constantly in ways that threaten life and property with too much rain or not enough--with drought that makes Western forests mere tinder and rainfall that makes Chinese and Indian farms and cities into lakes.

Climate change used to be about the future. Its bad effects were going to be visited upon those who come after us. But we have consistently underestimated the pace and impact of human-caused climate change from the day in 1896 when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first theorized about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

Now, climate change has arrived. Some like to call it climate chaos because it changes the climate in different places in different ways and at different rates. One thing we do know. The climate we grew up with is no longer.

That implies that our entire infrastructure of roads, rails, cities, farms, dams, in fact, nearly everything may be inadequate to the challenges posed by climate change. Our first priority ought to be securing the food we will need. That will mean developing better drought and flood resistant crops. In fact, it will mean rethinking all of agriculture which is now based on an industrial model implemented during a period of exceptional climate stability from the end of World War II through the end the last century.

This one task is daunting all by itself. And yet, we must also now think anew about rivers and levees; seawalls and relocation of cities; the viability of water sources including the sea itself (through desalinization).

We imagine wrongly that this rethinking is a mere engineering problem. We believe we will simply find technology that overcomes the problems created by climate change. But even if we do--and that is by no means certain since those problems aren't presenting themselves in an orderly and timely fashion--technology is not free. We will find it very, very expensive simply to protect our current ways of doing things rather than change them to accommodate climate change.

Let's look at some examples:

Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from one source, Lake Mead, the lake formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada-Arizona border. Because of an ongoing drought in the southwestern United States, one that began 15 years ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority came to fear that Lake Mead would fall below the authority's current two intakes leaving Las Vegas largely without water.

The cost of a now-completed third intake tunnel was $817 million. A companion pumping station scheduled for completion in 2020 will cost an additional $650 million. That's $1.47 billion for one additional intake for one city.

Despite this, water may be rationed starting next year if lake levels don't stabilize.

Oh, but wait, there's more. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the operators of Hoover Dam, are replacing turbines that generate much of Las Vegas's electricity because the current ones might not work as the lake level continues to decline. No cost estimate was provided.

When it comes to taking the train, you may decide not to if a climate change enhanced heat wave is in progress and likely to cause "sun kinks"in the tracks. These are deformations or bucklings resulting from exceptionally high heat. Derailments from this cause are already on the rise. What would it cost to make existing railroad tracks kinkproof? We don't know, but it's bound to be a lot. (By the way, taking the car won't be a solution as similar suddenly appearing buckling in roads can send cars flying. Not all kinks are as benign as the one I've linked to.)

Of course, sea level rise will be an enormously costly problem for the more than 2 billion people who live within 60 miles of a coastline. The Dutch have been holding the sea at back for centuries and have the most advanced and nuanced plan for addressing ongoing sea level rise. It isn't one that just holds the water back, but rather, in part, works with nature to provide for the natural ebb and flow of water.

The Dutch are good at engineering, too. They invested $3 billion in the so-called Europoort (sic) barrier that protects Rotterdam. That was 20 years ago, and so costs would be much higher today.

All these costs are in addition to mere maintenance of existing infrastructure for which the United States, for example, has already gotten a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ASCE estimated that just restoring the existing U.S. infrastructure to acceptable working order would cost $3.6 trillion by 2020. Many other countries have done a better job. But it's hard to see how the world's poor countries could both keep up with necessary maintenance AND build additional or enhanced infrastructure to meet the rigors of climate change.

Understandably, it's hard to plan when you have a wall of water coming at you as villagers in China and India experienced in recent floods. Both countries are faced with huge bills for an emergency response to what are turning out to be historic floods.

Right now humanity is like a patient without medical insurance or a doctor, one who visits the emergency room every time something serious goes wrong. That's a costly practice as is merely reacting to the inevitable catastrophes that climate change is now inflicting and will inflict upon us in the future. That said, it may be just as costly, though wiser, to prepare for climate change.

An Updated Version of the "Peak Oil" Story

Originally posted on

Written by Gail Tverberg

Reprinted with permission

The Peak Oil story got some things right. Back in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote an article published in Scientific American called, “The End of Cheap Oil.” In it they said:

Our analysis of the discovery and production of oil fields around the world suggests that within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand.

There is no single definition for conventional oil. According to one view, conventional oil is oil that can be extracted by conventional methods. Another holds it to be oil that can be extracted inexpensively. Other authors list specific types of oil that require specialized techniques, such as very heavy oil and oil from shale formations, that are considered unconventional.

Figure 1 shows the growth in unconventional oil supply for three parts of the world:

  1. Oil from shale formations in the US.
  2. Oil from the Oil Sands in Canada.
  3. Oil characterized as unconventional in China, in a recent academic paper of which I was a co-author. (Temporarily available for free here.)
Figure 1. Approximate unconventional oil production in the United States, Canada, and China. US amounts estimated from EIA data; Canadian amounts from CAPP. Oil prices are yearly average Brent oil prices in $2015, from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Approximate unconventional oil production in the United States, Canada, and China. US amounts estimated from EIA data; Canadian amounts from CAPP. Oil prices are yearly average Brent oil prices in $2015, from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Oil prices in 1998, which is when the above quote was written, were very low, averaging $12.72 per barrel in money of the day–equivalent to $18.49 per barrel in 2015 dollars. From the view of the authors, even today’s oil prices in the low $40s per barrel would be quite high. Since the above chart shows only yearly average prices, it doesn’t really show how high prices rose in 2008, or how low they fell that same year. But even when oil prices fell very low in December 2008, they remained well above $18.49 per barrel.

Clearly, if oil prices briefly exceeded six times 1998 prices in 2008, and remained in the range of six times 1998 prices in the 2011 to 2013 period, companies had an incentive to use techniques that were much higher-cost than those used in the 1998 time-period. If we subtract from total crude oil production only the production of the three types of unconventional oil shown in Figure 1, we find that a bumpy plateau of conventional oil started in 2005. In fact, conventional oil production in 2005 is slightly higher than the later values.

Figure 2. World conventional crude oil production, if our definition of unconventional is defined as in Figure 1.

Figure 2. World conventional crude oil production, if our definition of unconventional is defined as in Figure 1.

I would argue that far more crude oil production was enabled by high oil prices than I subtracted out in Figure 2. For example, Daqing Oil Field in China is a conventional oil field, but greater extraction has been enabled in recent years by polymer flooding and other advanced (and thus, high-cost) techniques. In the academic paper referenced earlier, we found that the amount of unconventional oil extracted in China in 2014 would be increased by about 55%, if we broadened the definition of unconventional oil to include oil made available by polymer flooding in Daqing, plus some other types of Chinese oil extraction that became more feasible because of higher prices.

Clearly, this same kind of shift to more expensive extraction methods has occurred around the world. For example, Brazil has been attempting to extract oil from below the salt layer of the ocean using advanced techniques. According to this article, Brazil’s “pre-salt” oil production was expected to exceed 600,000 barrels per day by the end of 2014. This oil should count, in some sense, as unconventional oil.

Massive investments in the Kashagan Oil Field in Kazakhstan were enabled by high oil prices. Some initial production began, but was discontinued, in September 2013. Production is expected to resume in October 2016.

There are clearly many smaller fields where higher extraction was made possible by high oil prices that allowed oil companies to utilize more advanced techniques. Deepwater drilling also became more feasible because of higher prices. Another example is Russia, which is reported to have heavy oil extraction that would not be commercially feasible if oil prices were below $40 to $45 per barrel. If we were to add up all of the extra oil production in many areas of the world that was enabled by higher prices, the total amount would no doubt be substantial. Subtracting this higher estimate of unconventional oil in Figure 2 (instead of the three-country total) would likely result in more of a “peak” in conventional oil production, starting about 2005.

Thus, if we think of conventional oil production as that which is possible at low oil prices, the forecast by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère was pretty much correct. Production of conventional oil did seem to peak about 2005 or shortly thereafter. We simply don’t have the data to estimate how much we could have extracted, if oil prices had remained low. Furthermore, oil prices did rise substantially, relative to 1998 prices, making Campbell’s and Laherrère’s forecast of higher prices correct.

I suppose that we could even say that if conventional oil were all that we had in 2005 and subsequent years, supply would have fallen far short of demand, based on Figure 2. This last statement is somewhat debatable, however, because there would have been other feedbacks, as well. It is possible that if total supply were very short, oil prices would have spiked to an even higher level than they really did. The resulting recession would likely have brought prices down, and temporarily brought demand back in line with supply. If prices had stayed low, there might have been a second round of shortages, with an even greater supply problem. This, too, might have been resolved by another price spike, quickly followed by another recession that brought world demand back down to the level of supply.

Of course, conventional crude oil isn’t the only type of liquid fuel that we use. When we add all of the pieces together, including substitutes, what we find is that since 1998, broadly defined oil production (“liquids”) has been rising quite rapidly.

Figure 3. World Liquids by Type. Unconventional oil is from Exhibit 1. Conventional oil is total crude oil from EIA, and other amounts are estimated from EIA International Petroleum Monthly amounts through October 2015. (EIA’s category “Other Liquids” is referred to as Biofuels in Figure 3, since this is its primary component. Other liquids also include coal and gas to liquids and other small categories.

Figure 3. World Liquids by Type. Unconventional oil is from Exhibit 1. Conventional oil is total crude oil from EIA, and other amounts are estimated from EIA International Petroleum Monthly amounts through October 2015. (EIA’s category “Other Liquids” is referred to as Biofuels in Figure 3, since this is its primary component. Other liquids also include coal and gas to liquids and other small categories.

In fact, since 2005, Figure 4 shows that the single highest year of growth in oil production (broadly defined) was 2014, with 2.47 million barrels per day. (This is based on crude oil data from EIA Beta Report Table 11.b, plus values for other liquids from EIA’s International Energy Statistics. Annual amounts for 2015 were estimated based on data through October.)

Figure 4. Increase over prior year in total oil liquids production, based on EIA data. 2015 other liquids amounts estimated based on data through October 2015.

Figure 4. Increase over prior year in total oil liquids production, based on EIA data. 2015 other liquids amounts estimated based on data through October 2015.

Figure 4 shows that the increase in oil supply in 2015 is almost as high as in 2014. The 2005 to 2015 period shown indicates a lot of “ups and downs.” The only two high years in a row are 2014 and 2015. This would seem to be at least part of our “oil glut” problem.

Exactly by how much oil production needs to increase to stay even with demand depends upon price–the higher the price, the smaller the quantity that buyers can afford. At a price of $100 per barrel, a reasonable guess might be that about 1 million barrels per day in consumption might be added. If categories other than crude oil are increasing by an average of 440,000 barrels per day, per year (based on data underlying Figure 4), then crude oil production only needs to increase by 560,000 barrels per day to provide an adequate supply of fuel on a total liquids basis.

If production of crude oil is actually increasing by more than 2.0 million barrels per day  when only 560,000 barrels per day are needed at a price level of $100 per barrel, clearly something is badly out of balance. According to EIA data, the countries with the five largest increases in crude oil production in 2015 were (1) US  723,000 bpd, (2) Iraq 686,000 bpd, (3) Saudi Arabia 310,000 bpd, (4) Russia 146,000 bpd, and (5) UK 106,000 bpd. Thus, US and Iraq were the biggest contributors to the global glut in 2015.

What Is Going Wrong?

Not only did a lot of people hear the Peak Oil story, a great many responded at once. Governments added requirements for more efficient vehicles. This tended to lower the quantity of additional oil supply needed. At the same time, governments added mandates for the use of biofuels, also reducing the need for crude oil. Arguably, the US-led Iraq war, which began in 2003, was also about getting more crude oil.

Oil companies also rushed in and developed oil resources that might be profitable at a higher price. These new developments often take more than ten years to produce oil. Once companies have started the long path to development, they are unlikely to stop, no matter how low oil prices drop.

It is becoming apparent that if oil prices can be raised to a high enough level, a lot more oil is available. Figure 5 shows how I see this as happening. We start at the top of the triangle, where there is a relatively small quantity of inexpensive oil, and we gradually work toward the expensive oil at the bottom.

Figure 5. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

Figure 5. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

The amount of oil (or for that matter, any other resource) isn’t a fixed amount. If the price can be made to rise to a very high level, the quantity that can be extracted will also tend to rise–in fact, by a rather large amount. The “catch” is that wages for the vast majority of workers don’t rise at the same time. As a result, goods made with high-priced oil soon become too expensive for workers to afford, and the economy falls into recession. The result is prices that fall below the cost of production. Thus, the limit on oil supply is not the amount of oil in the ground; instead, it is how high oil prices can rise, without causing serious recession.

While wages don’t rise with spiking oil prices, increasing debt can be used to hide the problem, at least temporarily. For example, cars and homes become less affordable with higher oil prices, since oil is used in making them. If governments can lower interest rates, monthly payments for new homes and cars can be lowered sufficiently that new car and home sales don’t fall too far. Eventually, this cover-up reaches limits. This happens when interest rates start turning negative, as they now are in some parts of the world.

Thus, by ramping up buying power with low interest rates and more debt, governments were able to get oil prices to stay above $100 per barrel for long enough for producers to start adding production that might be profitable at that price. Unfortunately, the amount of additional oil demand isn’t really very high at that price. So, instead of running out of oil, we ran into the reverse problem–too much oil relative to the amount that the world economy can afford when oil prices are $100+ per barrel.

The attempt by governments to fix the oil shortage problem didn’t really work. Instead, it led to the opposite mismatch from the one we were expecting. We got an oversupply problem–a problem of finding enough space for all our extra supply (Figure 6). Unless we have infinite storage, this pattern clearly cannot continue forever.

Figure 6. Weekly ending stocks of crude oil and petroleum products through July 29. Chart by EIA.

Figure 6. Weekly ending stocks of crude oil and petroleum products through July 29. Chart by EIA.

Eventually, this oversupply problem is likely to result in “mother nature” cutting off oil production in whatever way it sees fit–oil prices dropping to close to zero, bankruptcies of oil companies, or collapses of oil exporters. With lower oil supply, we can expect recession.

Misunderstanding the Real Problem

In the early 2000s, the story that Peak Oilers came up with (or perhaps the way it was interpreted in the press) was that the world was “running out” of conventional oil, and that this would lead to all kinds of problems. Oil prices would rise very high, and oil depletion would take place over a long period, as shown in a symmetric Hubbert Curve. As a result, at least small quantities of additional energy products with high “Energy Returned on Energy Invested” (EROI) were needed to supplement the energy products that would be produced based on the slowly depleting Hubbert Curve. Our oil supply problems were viewed as a unique situation, calling for new and unique solutions.

In my view, this story came about through over-reliance on models that likely were accurate for some purposes, but not for the purpose that they later were being used. One of these over-extended models was the supply and demand curve of economists.

Figure 7. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

Figure 7. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

This model “works” when the goods being modeled are widgets, or some other type of goods that does not have a material impact on the economy as a whole. Substituting high-priced oil for low-priced oil tends to make the economies of oil importing countries contract. This effect indirectly reduces demand (and thus prices) for many products (not just oil), an impact not considered in the simplified Supply and Demand model shown in Figure 7. Also, the very long lead times of the oil industry are not reflected in Figure 7.

Two other models that were used beyond the limits for which they were originally designed were the Hubbert Curve and the 1972 Limits to Growth model. Both of these models are suitable for determining approximately when limits might be hit. Even though Peak Oilers have believed that these models can accurately determine the shape of the decline in oil supply and in other variables after reaching limits, there is no reason why this should be the case. I talk about this problem in my recent post, Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers. Thus, for example, there is no reason to believe that 50% of oil will be extracted post-peak. This is only an artifact of an overly simple model. The actual down slope may be much steeper.

The Real Story of Resource Limits that We Are Reaching

Instead of the scenario envisioned by Peak Oilers, I think that it is likely that we will in the very near future hit a limit similar to the collapse scenarios that many early civilizations encountered when they hit resource limits. We don’t think about our situation as being similar to early economies, but we too are reaching a situation of decreasing resources per capita (especially energy resources). The resource we are most concerned about is oil, but there are other resources in short supply, including fresh water and some minerals.

Research by Joseph Tainter and by Peter Turchin indicates that some of the issues involved in previous resource-based collapses are the following:

Growing Complexity. Citizens who discovered they were reaching resource limits typically tried to work around this problem. For example, hunter-gatherers turned to agriculture when their population grew too large. Later, civilizations facing limits added irrigation to raise food output, or raised large armies so that they could attack neighboring countries. Making these changes required greater job specialization and more of a hierarchical system–two aspects of growing complexity.

This increased complexity used part of the resources that were in short supply, since people at the top of the hierarchy were paid more, and since building new capital goods (today’s example might be wind turbines and solar panels) takes resources that might be used elsewhere in the economy. Eventually, growing complexity reaches limits because costs rise faster than the benefits of growing complexity.

Growing Wage Disparity. With growing complexity, wage disparity became more of a problem.

Figure 8. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

Figure 8. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

I have described this problem as “Falling Return on Human Labor Invested.” Ultimately, this seems to be a major cause of collapse. Workers use machines and other tools, so this return on human labor has been leveraged by fossil fuels and other energy resources used by the system.

Spiking Resource Prices. Initially, when there is a shortage of food or fuel, prices are likely to spike. A major impediment to long-term high prices is the large number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy (Figure 8) who cannot afford high-priced goods. Thus, the belief that prices can permanently rise to high levels is probably false. Also, Revelation 18: 11-13 indicates that when ancient Babylon collapsed, the problem was a lack of demand and low prices. Merchants found no one to sell their cargos to; no one would even buy human slaves–an energy product.

Rising Debt. Debt was used to enable complexity and to hide the problems that people at the bottom of the resource triangle were having in purchasing goods. Ultimately, increased debt was not successful in solving the many problems the economies faced.

Ultimately, Failing Governments. Governments need resources for their purposes, whether hiring armies or making transfer payments to the elderly. The way governments get their share of resources is through the use of tax revenue. When people at the bottom of the hierarchy were cut out of receiving adequate resources (through low wages), the amounts they could afford to pay in taxes fell. Governments would sometimes collapse directly from lack of tax revenue; other times collapses occurred because governments could no longer afford large enough armies to defend their borders.

Ultimately, Falling Population. With low wages and governments requiring higher tax levels to fund their programs, people at the bottom of the hierarchy found it difficult to afford adequate nutrition. They became more susceptible to plagues. Loss of battles to neighboring countries could at times play a role as well.

Lessons We Should Be Learning

Even if we made it past peak conventional oil, there is likely a different, very real collapse ahead. This collapse will occur because the economy cannot really afford high-priced energy products. There are too many adverse feedbacks, including increasing wealth disparity and the likelihood of not enough revenue for governments.

We can’t count on long-term high prices. The idea that fossil-fuel prices will gradually rise, and because of this, we will be able to substitute high-priced renewables, seems very unlikely. In the United States, our infrastructure was mostly built on oil that cost less than $20 per barrel (in  2015 dollars). We know that with added debt and greater complexity, we were temporarily able to get oil to a high-price level, but now we are having a hard time getting the price level back up again. We really don’t know how high a price the economy can afford for oil for the long term. The top price may not be more than $50 per barrel; in fact, it may not be more than $20 per barrel.

We need to look for inexpensive replacements for both oil and electricity. Many substitutes are being made to produce electricity, since indirectly, electricity might act to replace some oil usage. There is considerable confusion as to how low these prices need to be. In my opinion, we can’t really raise electricity prices without pushing economies toward recession. Thus, we need to be comparing the cost of proposed replacements, including long distance transport costs and the cost of adjustments needed to match electric grid requirements, to wholesale electricity prices. In both the US and Europe (Figure 9), this is typically less than 5 cents per kWh. (In Figure 9, “Germany spot” is the wholesale electricity price in Germany–the single largest market.) At this price level, producers need to be profitable and to pay taxes to help support governments.

Figure 9. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from

Figure 9. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from

Replacements for oil need to be profitable and be able to pay taxes, at currently available price levels–low $40s per barrel, or less.

We need to be careful in aiming for high-tech solutions, because of the complexity they add to the system. High-tech solutions look wonderful, but they are very difficult to evaluate. How much do they really add in costs, when everything is included? How much do they add in debt? How much do they add (or subtract) in tax revenue? What are their indirect effects, such as the need for more education for workers?

We need to be alert to the possibility that solar PV and most wind energy may be energy sinks, rather than true energy sources. The two hallmarks of providing true net energy to society are (1) being able to provide energy cheaply, and (2) being able to provide tax revenue to support the government. When actually integrated into the electric grid, electricity generated by wind or by solar generally requires subsidies–the opposite of providing tax revenue. Total costs tend to be high because of many unforeseen issues, including improper siting, long-distance transport costs, and costs associated with mitigating intermittency.

Unless EROI studies are specially tailored (such as this one and this one), they are likely to overstate the benefit of intermittent renewables to the system. This problem is related to the issues discussed in my recent post, Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers. My experience is that researchers tend to overlook the special studies that point out problems. Instead, they rely on the results of meta-analyses of estimates using very narrow boundaries, thus perpetuating the myth that solar PV and wind can somehow save our current economy.

Too much debt, and too low a return on debt, are likely to be part of the limit we will be reaching. Investment in complexity requires debt, because complexity requires capital goods such as wind turbines, solar panels, computers and the internet. The return on this additional debt is likely to drop lower and lower, as complex solutions are added that have less and less true value to society.

We need to remember that as far as the economy is concerned, it is total consumption of energy resources that is important, not just oil. Wages reflect the leveraging impact of all energy sources, not just oil. If energy consumption per capita is rising, more and better machines can help raise output per capita, making workers more productive. If energy consumption per capita is falling, the world economy is likely moving in the direction of contraction. In fact, we may be headed in the direction of early economies that eventually collapsed.

When we look at the data, we see that world energy consumption per capita appears to have peaked about 2013. In fact, the big drop in oil and other commodity prices began in 2014, not long after energy consumption per capita hit a peak.

Figure 10. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

Figure 10. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

The world seems to have hit peak coal, because of low coal prices. In fact, falling coal consumption seems to be the cause of falling world energy consumption per capita. Whether or not most people regard coal highly, coal is pretty much essential to the world economy. A recent decrease in coal consumption is what is pulling world energy consumption per capita down. We do not have any other cheap fuel to make up the shortfall, suggesting that our current downturn in energy consumption (shown in Figure 10) may be permanent.

Figure 11. World and China appear to be reaching peak coal.

Figure 11. World and China appear to be reaching peak coal.

We should not be surprised if the financial problems that the world is now encountering will eventually resolve badly. This seems to be how the Peak Oil story will finally play out. Without rising energy per capita, the world economy tends to shrink. Without economic growth, it becomes very difficult to repay debt with interest. Wealth disparity becomes more and more of a problem, and it becomes increasingly difficult for governments to collect enough revenue to support their needs. Our problems begin to look more and more like those of earlier economies that hit resource limits, and eventually collapsed.

The New System Series: Volume 3

Written by Gus Speth

Originally posted on

In The New Economy: A Living Earth System Model,David Korten contrasts what he calls the self-destructing “suicide economy” we have and a “living Earth economy” that self-organizes toward ecosystem health and balance, shared prosperity, and living democracy. He calls for a system transformation that shifts power from global corporations to largely self-reliant and deeply democratic, self-governing, bio-regional living communities. Korten further argues that we cannot look to the corporations that created and benefit from the failed system to now transform that system. His priorities for system transformation include a new story of human possibility and purpose, a new economics that values life over money, a legal system that secures the rights of nature and people over the presumed rights of corporations, and a radical restructuring and redistribution of ownership. He sees leadership coming, as he believes it must, from social movements with a shared vision of unrealized human possibility.

In The Good Society, Henning Meyer argues that a values-based, social democratic system, with a mixed economy, holds considerable promise as a new model, and as the mechanism to change the current system. Meyer’s envisioned system “seeks to combine an activist cosmopolitan outlook on global issues with a re-foundation of social democracy’s communitarian roots.” At the core of the proposed changes is how policies are created. According to Meyer, we need to adopt a “transformative policy approach,” one that places politics over economic interests and focuses on transparency, inclusivity, democratic decision making, and global connectivity and solidarity. At the economic level, Meyer advocates for the adoption of diverse ownership models, including models that better fit the production of public goods. Financial markets and institutions must also be transformed to serve social purposes, explains Meyer. In addition to the values-based approach, Meyer claims that a “conducive regulatory environment,” along with trade unions, is crucial to combat economic inequality and the challenges of a digital era.

In Democratizing Wealth in the U.S. South, Ed Whitfield presents the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) vision for a next system based on communal ownership of productive assets. As Whitfield explains, the goal of the new system must be total economic democracy and community control over production, in order to place “the wealth created by human labor back into the commons for the benefit of all.” Focusing on the grassroots level, Whitfield advocates for a structural change in ownership, with cooperative associations and democratically managed community groups owning productive assets, and public financial institutions controlling and owning surplus values and investments. Examples of F4DC’s proposed system include experiments in community ownership and community-as-developer in the US South, site for past and ongoing crisis, along with reparations to be paid to communities that have been “systemically stripped of the wealth produced within them,” outlines Whitfield.

Finally, in Start With Worker Self-Directed Enterprises, Richard Wolff describes a next economic system centered on worker-directed cooperatives. According to Wolff, to transition to a non-capitalist system we must change the “who and the why of key economic decision making.” To do so, Wolff proposes changes at the “basic enterprise level” by “making workers their own bosses.” Through the creation of Worker Self Directed Enterprises (WSDE), workers become responsible for democratically deciding – one worker, one vote – how to divide up the tasks to be performed, what, how, and where it is to be produced, and how to use and distribute net revenues or profits. In making these decisions, WSDEs – working along with democratic organizations of residential communities – would consider matters in addition to just profit such as health, community wealth, and solidarity. According to Wolff, the “growth and proliferation” of WSDEs represents both the goal for the next system and the mechanism through which we will transition to it.

The Next System Project’s “New Systems” paper series seeks to publicize comprehensive alternative political-economic system models and approaches that are different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present, and capable of delivering superior social, economic, and ecological outcomes. The introduction to the series and a full list of New Systems papers published to date can be found here.

Gus Speth

Co-Chair, Next System Project

On Surplus--What is Wealth?

Originally posted on

Written by conference speaker Eric Lindberg

Community Solutions is featuring the writing of several conference speakers in the lead up to the Charting a New Course Conference! This is part two of a series. Read part one here!

I want to start with a couple of images. 

In late autumn of 1620, the Europeans we now celebrate as the Pilgrims stumbled on to shore near what is now Provincetown Massachusetts after over two months at sea.  Were it not for the additional stumbling that led to fresh burial mounds festooned with maize, the settlers would likely have starved to death right there and then.  But a little grave-robbing is always justified under extreme conditions.  Bellies filled, and seeds gathered in an impressive act of foresight, the Pilgrims then proceeded to “Plymouth.” There they worked for a few months to build a half-dozen ramshackle European style cabins, ordered all the single men and women in the group to marry so they might bunk-up and save cabin space, and proceeded to hunker-down for the remainder of an unhappy winter.  By spring, when “friendly Indians” finally decided to make contact, half of these settlers were dead.  Weak in body but still strong in spirit, or so we are likely to assume, the survivors had somehow managed to secure a second European foothold along the East coast of North America.

Natives of the area were by then already acquainted with Europeans from decades of trading along the Eastern seaboard.  They were aware of the Europeans’ basic incompetence with a number of remedial life-skills, and with their awful stench.  The undignified manners of these pale and hairy people, as well their unpredictable temper, had been impressed on the native population, who must have been puzzled at their uncanny ability to nevertheless survive repeat-trips into a netherworld beyond the horizon and back, or with their inexplicable competence at making copper pots, sailing ships, and muskets.

I imagine the wonder and amazement, touched perhaps with a bit of compassion, as the locals looked on in horrified curiosity as this maladapted settlement of smelly, hairy, human-like beasts attempted to survive a winter with almost no food or provisions—and of their disbelief that they would rather attempt another go-around than return to the land of copper pots and explosive weaponry.  The God’s, indeed, must be crazy.  As Charles Mann has suggested, the reason that this group was permitted to stay--in violation of a newly-formed practice of the various East-coast tribal confederates of sending Europeans on their way after the trading was done--had to do mainly with local inter-tribal politics. After wave upon wave of these stealing, lying, and cheating people continued use the Pilgrims’ initial foothold to stumble across the beaches and into the woods so that they might extend their cluster of strange and ill-adapted houses, allowing them stay was probably seen as a mistake. Everyone would have been far better-off if this sick and emaciated band of the half-living were pushed back into the sea from whence they came.[i]

History hardly has time to blink and it is 1900.  The whole continent has been swept-free of its natives along great trails of tears, leaving only small groups living in “reservations,” often far from their native hunting grounds, barely more healthy than the first settlers must have appeared when they staggered into the spring sun after their long winter of misery and death.   America, by now, is settled by white people from coast to coast, and is entirely ruled by their laws.  Wars have been fought, the buffalo is gone, and a canal is to be dug across the American isthmus so that, what?--that the same show might go on, only at a more frantic and restless pace?  My home, Milwaukee, is one of the new nation’s great industrial centers, where the wondrous successor technologies of copper pots and misfiring muskets is produced with great noise, smell, and fury.  Milwaukee was, by then, was sometimes to be referred to as “the machine shop to the world,” where the precise tools of the global industrial machine were crafted.

Where I more specifically have my home, now the adjacent suburb of Shorewood, is still mainly unsettled in 1900, but its population of thee-hundred votes then to split off from Milwaukee, then calling itself East Milwaukee.  By 1924, when our strangely small 800 square foot Dutch Colonial was built, Shorewood had received its current name and many of its current houses.  These, mainly larger and far more luxurious than ours, were the destination of a growing owner and managerial class from Milwaukee’s many tool and die makers, fabricators, and other industrialists, in addition to the upper echelons managers from some of its larger corporations who are looking to move out of the noisier and smellier confines of the city.

For as part of Shorewood’s 1917 charter, when it received its current, more pastoral name, is the promise of a “place to live and relax, free from any reminders of agriculture and industry.” It is a place where one goes to forget.  Shorewood was a wealthy place, and, like today, it doesn’t want to think about where its wealth came from.  Then, its residents were hiding from the smells, the noise and disruption, and the babble of foreign voices from the factories floor.  Now, perhaps under the guise of “good schools,” even the most “progressive” among us are here are keeping Milwaukee’s racial divide at arm’s length, perhaps imagining that we live in some sort of creative global knowledge economy where anyone can become a tech wizard or an internet entrepreneur.  Shorewood is effortlessly wealthy--wealthy without pretension.  From the larger mansions directly on the lake, it is true, one might witness the crisp and punctual early-morning emergence of shimmering BMW SUVs and polished exotic sports car, heading off to some private parking lot somewhere near downtown.  But myShorewood is more a haven for computer programmers and other “tech” people living in some permanent “casual Friday” fantasy, the home of middle-management on its way up, dignified professors, liberal doctors and lawyers, all living in what TV or the movies portray as very normal and modest American lives.  Of course we don’t want to be reminded of where our wealth comes from.  We are embarrassed even to be called wealthy; that this is one of the most “liberal” communities in all of Wisconsin is a far more appealing justification for our way of life.

And just as our garbage cans, toddler toys, and lawn care implements are, according to well-enforced village codes, kept neatly out of sight, so also does Shorewood still aspire in its mainly unwritten social codes to be free from all reminders of industry and agriculture.  Global capitalism is a brutal and ugly business, unless you stick closely to its glittering packaging and carefully penned copy.  No one wants to be reminded of it these days--even while at work, where offices are now modeled after a high-end coffee shop; nor do its higher-achievers want to gaze from front porch or patio towards the service economy that stands ready and waiting to help, but preferably just out of view.

Enough people like me and my wife have managed to sneak in (and we are reproducing!)—by this I mean the sort of people who may have had a nerve touched by the description of disappointment and decline that I offered in Part 1.  There are, after all, apartment buildings and duplexes in Shorewood, and one can never control all the variables there.  Most of this lumpen-bourgeoisie fringe is able to keep up appearances well enough to blend in without too much notice, our quiet desperation hidden behind taupe vinyl siding and second hand shabby-sheik clothing.  The middle-class in America is a strange designation: while more than half of all Americans consider themselves middle-class, the life they aspire to is preserved for a far more exclusive top 20% or so. That of course leaves a tremendous rank of our citizenry living in a way far beneath what it believes itself entitled to.   Shorewood is a haven for the 20%, but with just enough of us high expectation aspirants mixed in to keep things interesting.

Where Did All the Money Go?

One of the comforting upshots of the response to Part 1 of this series “On Surplus” was to hear how many others feel in some general way or another like I do.  No one likes truly to be alone.  For most of us, the actual feelings of failure are only periodic or episodic; but a sense of not living up to our dreams or expectations still plays a substantial role in the happiness and wellbeing of many Americans in the generations following the baby-boomers.  One particularly thoughtful comment came from my friend and colleague and Transition Milwaukee, Jessica Cohodes, who noted that while millennials still live in their parents’ basement with more or less self-acceptance, our generation straddles the gap between millennials and their parents.  Because I am in the midst of a home renovation and addition project, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d rather live in my parents’ basement than work myself to death trying to build my own version of it for my kids.

While the emotions I discussed in Part 1 are difficult in their own way, and involve some dedicated life-work, this installment will demand a different sort of difficult work for those not already familiar with the discourse surrounding the limits to growth or peak oil—namely conceptual work.  I will contrast these new concepts to the ones we are familiar with—namely the standard set of concepts and assumptions that we in the industrialized West use to explain wealth and poverty.  We use the same concepts and assumptions to predict the future, as well as control it with policies or investments.  While these familiar concepts are complex in their own way, our knowledge of them has seeped into our consciousness over years and years.  Like compound interest (or lead from our drinking water), our assumptions about wealth and abundance accrue gradually and without much work. 

The luxury of slow accrual is not available, here.  For in a relatively short space, I’m going to argue that these--let’s call them “mainstream concepts”--are mainly mistaken, and, at the same time, introduce a better, alternative set, that will explain where we are today and where we might go tomorrow.  In thirty years these new concepts will, I think, have seeped into general consciousness, but for now this sort of conceptual change involves some focus and work.

If our general question is What is Wealth and Where Did it Go?  We might approach the conceptual change I’m discussing in two steps.  First is the general question we ask when we are feeling like it is harder get by these days or when we are feeling that many of our childhood dreams have become impossible to obtain; second is the more specific terms we use to ask and answer these questions.  The most common way of addressing this frame of mind today is to ask, “Where has all the money gone?”  And this is a perfectly expected sort of question that a young auto-worker might ask when he or she enter the assembly line, today, with less than half the pay that senior workers enjoy; or that young university professors might ask when it is announced that they have to teach an extra class for the same pay, or when they realize mid-semester that they covering the cost of their own photocopying out of pocket.  This isn’t how things used to be.  “Why the change?  Where has all the money gone?”  But this, it turns out, is the wrong question.

Before I suggest an alternative question that we might instead ask, and propose an alternative set of terms we might use to ask it, I’d like to first note that that our contemporary political debate is, if you think about it, largely focused on the question, “where did all the money go?”  That, after all, is what Donald Trump is getting at when he promises “to make America Great Again,” or what Bernie Sanders is referring to with his talk of a “rigged economy” (which it may, nevertheless be) that is directing increasing wealth towards the already rich.  Both sides ask the same question, but each gets a very different answer and, importantly, an answer that makes discussion and compromise all the more difficult.  Republicans and conservatives, for their part, tend to argue that all our riches have been taxed away and put into wasteful government programs.  Liberals, in contrast, argue that instead of investing our money in useful things (like education, research, and infrastructure), so that we might enjoy a profitable return, it has been put in the hands of an economic elite--one who lives in shameful luxury while risking the national treasure on foolish investment schemes. 

But this description of the divide refers to our current politics as its best.  For the relatively civil question: “where did all the money go?” all too easily becomes the more irascible: “who took my money?”  Then we are off to the races, whether your answer is welfare mothers or Mexican immigrants, or Wall Street Bankers and Washington insiders.

American politics, in other words, feeds on the resentment and confusion caused by the sense that our previous, and normal, level of wealth has disappeared—that money we are entitled to as hard working Americans who are playing by the rules is now in someone else’s pocket.  With ever-increasing threat to our Republic, our politics preys upon a belief that has come to be considered almost a law of nature: that each generation should be wealthier and have more opportunity than the previous one.  Only a great heist or near complete lapse in public morals of the most terrible kind, the reasoning goes, could tip the earth from its axis of permanent progress.

One of the many advantages to the new way of seeing that I will be presenting is that it might just get us beyond contemporary political gridlock.  I am often struck by the way our political gridlock is blamed on the “other” side.  “If only they would see how ridiculous their beliefs are, we could all move forward according to sensible policies.”  Rare are the moments when anyone stops to consider that our gridlock may be explained by a more simple explanation—that neither side has a useful answer, nor is their one lying ready in the middle ground lying between them.  Both sides remain equally confident, nonetheless, that their shared questionis the right one—some version of, “where did all the money go?”  Neither side is stupid.  But both sides do lack the political imagination to get beyond the historical crossroads we passed miles ago—and perhaps for the simple reason that this crossroad marked the end of the two sides as they have been divided for the past century.  Keeping the show going, apparently, has been more important than reflecting upon our changing times.

This, however, may change as more people are in fact articulating their feelings of loss and disappointment in mature and reflective ways.  Though so, too, are more people ready to become armed and dangerous.

The Right Question

But what if we ask this question instead: “Where did all the money come from in the first place?”  What paid for all those opportunities and growing luxuries that seemed to fall into our parents’ laps, but not ours?  Not, then: “Why do new autoworkers only make $15/hour?”;  but: “What permitted their predecessors to make so much more (adjusted for inflation) in 1970?  Not: “Why do I have to teach three classes every semester?”  But: What stroke of magic, good luck, or unexpected windfall made it possible for a $70,000 a year professor to be assigned, for a time, only two classes per semester? Who paid for this, and why?  Asking such questions is not to say that I believe in a simple way that the past privileges enjoyed by the generations preceding mine were necessarily ill-begotten.  But it is to remind us that there is no law of nature saying that a 2/2 teaching load is an inherent promise of an evolving humanity.   In any case of current or former prosperity, the money to pay for it came from somewhere.   And now, for many ordinary white people in Europe and America, it doesn’t appear to be “there” anymore.  This “somewhere” was, and mainly remains, invisible and forgotten--and invisible or forgotten origins have a tendency to make a state of affairs seem natural or inevitable.  But if we look closely at where the great wealth that my parents’ generation had (and still maintains) came from in the first place, only then might we get a good sense where it may have “gone” and whether we should expect to repeat past achievements.

Changing the question from “where did all the money go?,” to “where did it come fromin the first place?,” is an improvement, to be sure.  But we’re still not all the way there.  To push us further, I’m going to make a suggestion that may be initially difficult to comprehend, for I’m going to propose that we stop talking about wealth in terms of money; to talk about wealth and its disappearance in terms of money, I will later show, is misleading.  Money is not the same thing as wealth and the very concept of money creates a fog that obscures a much longer and clearer view of history.  As long as we talk about the wealth of nations in terms of how much money there is to pay workers, to finance infrastructure, service debt, spend on vacations, mortgages, and new cars, or to invest in the future, we will be stuck with the sort of answers we see coming out of American politics today—“who took my money?” 

What other way is there to discuss such things except in terms of money?  This is where we get to the title of my series, for I propose that we talk about the wealth of nations, and also intergenerational change and disappointments, as well as all the other things we tend to think about in monetary terms, with another word—namely, surplus.  To answer the question of Part II’s specific title, wealth is surplus.

The Long View of Things

So let’s talk about surplus.  As a sort of heads up, note that it may not be immediately apparent what advantage is gained by talking about surplus instead of money, as the term money might be substituted back into many of my examples without much obvious effect; though with some careful reflection the difference may begin to take shape.  The advantage gained by a change in terms will truly reveal itself when we start re-posing questions about change and ask “where did all the surpluscome from and where did it all go?”  This will be the main subject of our third installment, so we’re going to have to wait a little while to see the full value of the concept of surplus while we explore it here in a more preliminary way and according to a “long view” of history. [ii]   One main advantages of using the concept of surplus (rather than money) that becomes visible right up front, however, is that it allows us a broader historical range:  using the concept of surplus allows us to compare the modern condition to past ones.  It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to say that the Mayan empire collapsed because they didn’t have enough money.   The Mayans did not have a financial crisis and a boatload of cash would not have helped them with their soil fertility problems; nor would we say that the inhabitants of the Easter Islands spent too much of their money on elaborate statues.  But both civilizations did, however, have a crisis of declining surplus.  The same sort of crisis of declining surplus, many will be surprised to learn, is occurring in the industrialized world today, even as we are unable to see this clearly through the cloud of money we are throwing at it, with so much vitriol and fanfare.

One of the main lessons of Anthropology 101 is that societies become wealthy, and then complex (and ultimately modern), only when they learn how to amass and store large amounts of food, and eventually other things.  This usually involves the storage of grain.  The grain that was stored, in turn, was always a surplus--not needed, in other words, for immediate, day to day, survival.   Once a group of people had stored and saved food at-the-ready, everything changes. 

In a pre-agricultural society, in contrast to the ones we call “advanced”—namely, hunting and gathering societies—obtaining food was a daily challenge that required the successful effort of almost every one of society’s members.  Sure, some days the hunt may have gone well and rest may have begun earlier, while on other days the best hunters may have toiled late into the evening.  But quick and successful hunts did not generally result in wealth as we understand it, but more likely a few extra hours of leisure.   For wealth involves the accumulation of a surplus.  There were relatively few ways to store food before the transition to a grain-based diet; storage was something impractical, moreover, for nomadic hunters and gatherers.  Wealth would have been considered a burden, which, perhaps, it is.  Without surpluses, nonetheless, there was little opportunity for personal ambition or social stratification into elites and non-elites, for ambition and stratification require the ability to distribute (or not) stored wealth.  

The historical record supports this explanation.  Prior to the development of complex societies with accumulated surplus a mere ten thousand years ago, human cultures were generally egalitarian and internally homogeneous.  Everyone lived in a pretty uniform way; there were no classes or castes, no rich and no poor; no lawyers, house cleaners, professors, minimum wage workers, or regional supply managers, nor was there a fashion industry designed to help us identify ourselves as rich or poor, traditional or irreverent, liberal or conservative, prudish or adventurous.  There were no Democrats and no Republicans arguing whether society should share more or less of its surplus across its social stratifications and amongst its various occupations, nor debating whether we needed to “move forward” towards increased social heterogeneity, or instead “look back” and honor some our previous forms of stratification.

This contrast between an egalitarian low-surplus society and a hierarchical high-surplus one can often be made only by studying a single civilization evolving across history, or at least by viewing two very different time-periods.  However, and quite recently, two “eras” of human development crossed paths on a mass scale on our own continent of North America, and with the awful results I hinted at above.  Although earlier inhabitants of what we now call “New England” combined agriculture with hunting and gathering, they were not interested in amassing surplus.  The whole European experiment in North America, starting with our humble Pilgrims, in contrast, has been an exercise in cornering an increasing percentage of the whole world’s surplus.

Diana Muir nicely describes the difference in Reflections on Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England.  On the one hand, she explains, “here was a people who hunted, or picked, or raised everything they needed.  Indians lived secure in the knowledge that so long as rivers flowed to the sea and trees grew in the forests, they and their children would have warm lodges to live in, warm skins to wrap themselves against the cold, and plenty to eat.  Accumulating more coats than a family could wear or more pots than were needed for cooking was worse than pointless: it was burdensome.”  In contrast to this simple[iii] and highly-adapted ecology-based economy, on the other hand, were the white settlers coming ashore in increasing numbers, bringing with them ship after ship full of stuff: “Englishmen viewed the world in a quite a different light.  Against life’s vicissitudes, with the ever pressing need to provide for one’s children, the constant striving for social position, the always threatening possibilities of financial loss, a bad harvest, or an investment gone sour, one could never pile up too many goods.  Wealth was the shining prospect that beckoned every man forward; sufficiency, a thing no Englishman could attain.”[iv]  Even though one can draw a pretty straight line from these white settlers to Walmart, or the 2008 financial collapse, or the life-threatening emission of greenhouse gasses, it is widely believed that theirs was the superior way of life.

This, of course, is not to say that starving white settlers had an easy go of it, nor that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture automatically ensured societal or individual wealth—an imperial and colonial mindset, however, certainly helped things along, as would the regular appearance ofsailingships from over the horizon.  But, especially with its focus on the production of dried grains, agriculture did make wealth possible for a simple reason: now surplus could be stored, and from here a whole chain of causal accumulation might be anchored.  If your relatives back in Europe are hunters and gatherers, you can pretty much know in advance that they will not have much to send you.  When environmental or technological conditions were favorable and a people were able to grow more food than they needed, all sorts of new options are suddenly available.  With increased agricultural productivity, the food and fiber required for subsistence might, in effect, be grown in half a day.  The other half-day could be devoted to the production of storable or tradable food, or to devising better ploughing techniques or selecting hardier cultivars or building better ships and sending supplies to your more adventurous kinfolk.  Or the surplus time could be devoted to art, song, astronomy and mathematics, or even hours frittered away playing Grand Theft Auto or writing a blog with a readership of a few dozen. 

This is a nice image of an egalitarian division of labor and leisure split equally across a society so that everyone may work only half a day on necessities and spend the other half pursuing leisure, study, or ambition.  It probably only existed in Marx’s vision of communist society, in which, as he dreamily put it, I might “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic” (The German Ideology 160).  Needless to say, though Marx says it anyways, such a paradise of self-actualization requires “an existing world of wealth and culture,” which, in turn, “presupposes a great increase in productive power” (161).  This fantasy is not the stuff of a subsistence culture, which may nevertheless provide some bucolic images for Marx’s model, but certainly not the optional nature of it it which only existed in Marx’s pliant mind.  Historically, as Marx is well aware, with the rise of surpluses most people ended up working all day (and in many cases far more hours than their ancestors) in order to provide enough surplus so that another section of society might be free to spend their entire day on astronomy, with their concubines, managing grain production and distribution, breaking away from the Church of England, or coming up with fanciful stories that would keep the workers willingly at work.  Without these workers and their “surplus labor,” moreover, we would not have seen the rise of the modern university nor academic institutions like sabbatical, which is designed to give the over-worked professoriate an opportunity to periodically refresh mind, spirit, and curriculum vitae.

 What we proudly think of as advanced industrial societies are ones in which a decreasing percentage of the population is responsible for procuring the food and energy required by the rest of society.

When an extreme few can produce enough surplus so that their whole society can enjoy a degree of security against hunger and destitution, there is no telling what wonders and terrors the remainder of society might be able to produce.  Such a society, we might imagine, could even save its brave Pilgrims with a fully televised helicopter rescue the moment their pangs of hunger begin in earnest[v].  It takes a lot of surplus, at any rate, to devote a substantial sector of society to waiting around in a comfortable hangar in case anyone runs amuck in some or another self-imposed adventure.

We are at the point, now, where we can replace the usual definition of wealth as having lots of money, with a definition based on surplus.  A wealthy society is one with a large surplus at its disposal, and the larger the surplus the wealthier the society.  Societal wealth always begins with efficient or super-abundant agriculture, as Betty Meggers pointed out long ago. [vi]   A similar definition could be applied to individuals or families as well.  A wealthy person is one who has a lot left over after basic requirements for living have been squared away.   Wealth, then, refers to all the goods, services, knowledge, social practices, and refinement that a society or a person is able to amass or consume after basic necessities have been met.   The objects of wealth, themselves, are also surplus objects in that they are not necessary, whether we are talking about elaborate burial rites, separate bedrooms for each family member, a special suit of clothes set aside for special occasions, regular access to entertainment, a new BMW matching all the other ones in your law firm’s parking lot, or even a safety and security industry devoted to saving members of society not necessary for its ongoing survival as a whole. 

Vacations and retirement, both of which are assumed in our society as a sort of basic human right, are two of the more interesting examples of surplus.  Vacations, for their part, require an entire “tourism industry,” which doesn’t actually produce anything, but rather helps collect and redistribute a society’s surplus (the very notion of a “global service economy” is silly at best; without having the language to describe it, it imagines even more expansion in surplus to the point where almost no one is required to produce necessities and everyone else is free to service each other).  But even more basic than the existence of a tourism industry is this: the ability to take time away from work implies that your work is productive enough to support your needs for the time you spend away from it.  We take this for granted, but as for any hunters and gatherers, most nineteenth-century farmers could scarcely afford to go a week without working (even as their work helps support a nascent “leisure class”).  Of course the same goes for a larger underclass of contemporary Americans than most of us are likely to keep in mind.  On the farm there was always too much to do, and for workers working pay-check to pay-check, today, the ability to stay a half-step ahead of rent, grocery costs, and car payments is all that most can manage. 

Retirement--an extended multi-year vacation if you think about it--is even a more pronounced expression of surplus.  Looked at without its air of normalcy in our high-surplus society, retirement is an astonishing feat: to be able to stop working and yet still have enough stored grain (so to speak), or the means to buy it from others, for five, ten, now even twenty or thirty years, requires a substantial amount of surplus production during working years.  Those who enjoy long and comfortable retirements are able to live, and often live lavishly, by setting aside perhaps as much as half of what they “produced” while working.   Again, the idea of a hunter-gatherer, or even a farmer prior to the last century or so, being able to simply stop pursuing game or producing food for a decade or more would have been inconceivable, even as the extended family structure may have compensated for the slowing production of older members of society.  Or to put it another way, without a societal surplus, as well as a personal one, the large savings account which affords years of leisure become implausible.

Surplus Morality

The existence of a large societal surplus also creates a new set of values, as well as life goals.  The difficulties I wrote of in Part 1 referred, when it comes down to it, merely to the adjustments one has to make as society goes from one of increasing surpluses to ever-so slightly decreasing ones.[vii]  The constant creation of “more” is the opiate of Liberal societies.  At any rate, something similar to the previous transition from frontier subsistence farming nation to our leisure society is occurring, now in reverse, in contemporary society.  My parents had to work fewer hours than I to gain access to more.  The nation’s surplus was, at that time achieved more easily and required less work than it does today, and this surplus was consequently doled out more freely to Americans as part of some “great society.”[viii] For my grain elevators to be as full as my parents’ would require an inconceivable amount of work at my current rate of production.  It seems that they must have had hundreds of slaves to create so much long-term stored bounty.  I’m lucky if I have a few weeks’ extra supply, while they could keep an entire village from hunger for years.

 Why this change is occurring will be the subject of the next installment.  Here, we might note that in our society there are a wide and rarely questioned set of social norms, a sense of fashion, even a moral code surrounding the appearance and manifestation of surplus.  Simple things, like the suntan as a fashion statement has been a way of saying “I don’t have work all the time,” while what we used to call “a farmer’s tan,” the sort of markings a sensible person who was hard at work with a shirt on might receive from the sun, was an object of scorn.[ix]  Indeed most modern social and aesthetic norms are meant to mark someone’s relative freedom from labor and access to surplus.  The manicured lawn is another such statement with distinct moral overtones: I don’t have to grow food; I can control nature; I have time or money enough to hunt down lone dandelions. 

These moral overtones are made more explicitly visible if you contrast the row after row of thoughtful and creative landscaping in my village of Shorewood with the look of a poor semi-rural neighborhood, perhaps in Appalachia (as our stereotypes might have it) that might be strewn with washing machines, rusty trucks, and piles of defunct machinery.  Are these people just ill-kempt or lazy?  Are they lacking all sense of decorum or aesthetics? Have they no self-respect?  Such questions, implicit in our judgments about us and them, make sense only from within dialect of high-surplus.  A more general vocabulary sees the differences of surplus.  For as the owner of the junkiest house in Shorewood, I can say with some first-hand knowledge that waste disposal costs money and clean-up takes time; after a back-breaking day of physical labor, neither moving that old tractor nor landscaping the lawn has as much appeal as a cold Budweiser.  If, on the other hand, you sit at a desk all day managing complexity, and come home from work at 4:00, garden work might provide a nice and simple transition to the evening pleasures of a good meal and a nice glass of wine.  And if your high-powered job has too many demands, there is always the lawn service (peopled by an invisible set of low-surplus workers whose lawns might resemble mine).  Both the time to do it yourself or have someone do it are of course signs of a surplus, while the junky front yard may a symptom of having little time or money left-over after first order necessities have been paid for.

It is no wonder, then, that my own urban homestead, and others like it, cause an occasional stir.  And to be fair, I should note that part of the controversy surrounding our landscaping may have to do not only with the relatively minor disarray I bring into the neighborhood, but my focus on growing food in front and back yards.  Our front yard, a gently terraced hill, is given over to a large strawberry patch, two apple trees, and two pear trees.  The area just in front of the house normally reserved for decorative shrubs is used for tomatoes, kale, carrots, and green beans.  I’ve been meaning to build a stone retaining on our side of the neighbor’s retaining wall, but who has $500 for a load of rocks?  At one point some of my neighbors may have been pleased to see the arrival of some large decorative boulders (salvaged from some excavation)—the start, perhaps, of some serious hardscaping.  But these are scattered on the hill to create warm microclimates with their solar mass for my crop of squash and pumpkin, which are allowed to spread across the grassy/weedy areas from their warm compost-filled holes and mounds.

Urban agriculture has, since we helped introduce it here some eight or so years ago, become nearly as hip as the Starbucks coffee grounds made conspicuously available for our compost piles.  But no one has yet to prettify a rusting pickup truck with only one operable door.  Though one rarely thinks consciously of it like this, I believe it goads people mainly because it is a reminder of the world that is supposed to halt at Milwaukee’s city limits (though some neighborhoods to our south would certainly be as inhospitable as my Shorewood one)—a reminder of agriculture and industry, and, in short, of where surplus comes from (and who has the most of it).  Shorewood trades in clean and discrete monetary transactions, and ones with more zeros than average or than the world can sustain. From this tidy and well-kept perspective, there is little incentive to think much about where the money really comes from, other than the standard “good job,” “hard work,” “smart investment,” upon which a good liberal might maintain some pride.

As evidence, consider the way I have arrived at work at least four times only to be greeted by a message on my company answering machine (the number taken off my truck door) complaining that my truck was parked in front of their house, usually just around the corner from ours (and only when someone has a party or celebration and the street parking right in front of us fills up).   The emphasis, regardless of the complainer, has always been that it is a “commercial truck.”  This was true even ten years ago, when it was new-looking and rust-free.  Currently (indignity upon indignity), I have two giant sixty-gallon tanks of spray foam insulation and two nitrogen tanks of pressurizer standing upright in the bed of my truck.  Even I have to admit that it all looks ungainly out of place, even when partially shielded behind the front yard sprawl of pumpkin and squash, the overgrowing strawberry patch, and scattered edible weeds like lambsquarters run wild.  Spray foam insulation is a centerpiece of the “green economy” that is furiously, if somewhat desperately, promoted in places like this.  But chemical tanks just plain look ugly.   No one wants to see these, any more than an oil storage depot, as part of their immediate landscape.  This is more than some of my neighbors can take: the timing with which I have become the object of at least one neighbor’s silent fury is a bit too exact to be a matter of coincidence.

It occurred to me, as I was trying to wrap this installment up, that I have a strange sort of reverse identification with the Pilgrims.  They were trying to begin a higher-surplus life amidst the wildness of a sprawling continent for which, at the time, they were entirely unsuited.  They would have been far better-off with fewer copper pots and more foraging skill.  They and their descendants turned the wilderness into surplus so that they would not have to adapt.  In contrast, my wife and I are trying (with more or less consciousness) to live a low-surplus life amidst a high-surplus community.  There are times in which we seem as ill-adapted to our local ecology as the Pilgrims were to theirs.  They nearly killed themselves off trying to build silly wood-frame houses during their first winter, when a hand-woven hut would have done much better; we live in a silly wood-frame house (which I amkilling myself to enlarge) when all we can really afford is a hand-woven hut.  This is grossly hyperbolic, to be sure, but there is a sense in which my time spent picking squash-borer eggs off my pumpkin plants would be far better spent making “real” money—in ways with both practical and symbolic consequences.  Having the highest soil fertility on the block does not pay the village taxes, for it does not create surplus—and surplus, not sufficiency, is clearly the local currency.

As part of my reverse-identification with the Pilgrims, then, here’s a final image.  Just as they emerged stumbling from the ocean, I imagine the original (pre 2006) Shorewood population pushing me and my kind into Lake Michigan as a sort of reverse reenactment of the all-American Thanksgiving tale of the friendly and helpful natives.  This, of course, is what Native Americans should have done to the Pilgrims before they destroyed everyone’s peace and tranquility, as well as the pleasing sight-lines of the local landscape. Perhaps I’ll suggest this dramatic (re)enactment for our annual neighborhood Thanksgiving pageant. I might also mention that as the economic world tips further off its previous access, there may be a more general landslide in this direction.

[i] See Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[ii] In the meantime, we might begin by noting that modern economics has proceeded without much consideration of surplus, even though high surplus is one of the most significant conditions of the modern era that modern economics has attempted to explain.  The same is true of our politics and well nearly all our primary cultural assumptions, including what it means to live a good, happy, or moral life.  Adam Smith, it is true, did argue that the wealth of nations has little to do with how much gold was held in the royal coffers.  Instead, he suggested, wealth had to do with how much in the way of goods and services a nation could produce.  Though he doesn’t discuss this issue explicitly, he is in a sense suggesting we talk about surplus rather than money.  But after Smith “solved” the basic problem of wealth, a high and growing level of surplus is assumed in subsequent political and economic discourse, to the point that no one feels too compelled to talk much about the general conditions making a high level of surplus possible (this being the starting point), focusing instead on tweaking the system or bettering our predictive abilities.  Or to put it in reverse, modern technology, we assume, has solved the problem of scarcity—as experienced, for instance, by the Pilgrims, who today would enjoy a televised helicopter rescue.

Marx presents a rather interesting semi-alternative to the assumption of permanent and invisible surplus.  Marx found great perspective by standing on the shoulders of Smith and Ricardo, but was, in so doing, handed a great number of their assumptions, especially the belief that we might permanently expect high aggregate surplus.   Marx, unlike his “bourgeois” counterparts was not willing to permit this surplus to be invisible.  He was very concerned with the “surplus labor” of the worker, and thus thought a great deal about value and its distribution in general.  Surplus labor was the amount of value (goods and services) workers created beyond that necessary to sustain themselves.  Marx’s point, of course, is that the worker was not permitted by the rules of capitalism to keep much, if any, of this surplus—only enough to “reproduce himself,” as Marx would put it.  Owners, in other words, would pay the bare minimum necessary to make sure there would be living and breathing workers the next day.    The surplus created by the worker was, instead, used to make the capitalist wealthy and provide for him his luxury and finery.  

Marx of course wanted to redistribute our social surpluses in ways, we need to admit, that have been partially accomplished by liberal society, especially during its mid twentieth-century peak.  But like the most doctrinaire capitalist, Marx never waivers from the assumption that we might take for granted an extremely high level of surplus in modern society and that this level of surplus might be permanent.  At heart, he was a progressive, and believed that humanity had solved the problem of scarcity once and for all by way of a few eternal technical leaps.  The common belief that poverty is indicative of a heist (and only a heist), or at least a rigged economy, owes much to Marx, one of the great theorists of modernity operating from its inside.

But as I have mentioned a few times, one of the characteristics that makes modern society “modern” is the assumption of high surplus and, importantly, an inability to doubt its permanence.  In order to gain perspective on this feature of the present, and thus think about surplus in a more basic way, we need to get beyond modern economics and its handmaidens, and turn to archaeology and anthropology.  Here, the rise of the surplus society that most everyone considers permanent and beyond question is a major point of discussion. As an aside, let me say that I am grateful to my high-modernist education, for I am able to clearly see its flaws up close and personally; but if I were to do it again, I would study anthropology for the sake of its long view of history, where we are able to consider the rise of civilization, per se, and imagine its possible fall

[iii] In the sense of simplicity and complexity used by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies—namely homogenous lifestyles and occuptions in a non-stratified fairly egalitarian society.

[iv] Muir, Diana.  Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (Lebanon NH: The University Press of New England, 2000), p. 32.

[v] Of course to be realistic about it, we have to admit that any such Pilgrims would be characters in some reality TV show with some contractual clause about mandated conditions of rescue.

[vi] “The level to which a culture can develop is dependent on the agricultural potentiality of the environment it occupies.” Quoted in Mann, p. 332.

[vii] Which is why we need not only to buck-up, but pay attention too, so that we might prepare ourselves for a steeper decline.

[viii] Of course it is not as simple as this and there is no easy algorithm by which we can make comparisons.  We have less than my parents, even though I can perhaps put more computing power in my pocket than my father’s first university had at its entire disposal.  Our expectations have changed, and we have more digital information, more crappy stuff from Target that will last only a year than my parents ever might have had.  Yet they were able to save enough of their surplus to have all this plus their memories of more simple times in which a new black and white TV receiving four channels was a great technological leap.


[ix] Before the modern outdoor leisure culture, a suntan of any sort was a sign, in contrast, of having to work and was something people tried to avoid.  The social statement that a suntan makes might be attributed to the decline of agricultural labor and the rise of indoor labor, such that a low-surplus person who worked a lot was likely working inside and thus was pale.  The rich kids, in other words, were able to hang out on the beach all summer, while those of lesser means might take a summer job in a factory or office.

 In all honesty, I have taken some dramatic liberties with my descriptions, here.  A great many of my Shorewood neighbors are lovely people, and a great number of my low-brow friends do just fine in these environs.  However, though some of my descriptions may not fully represent the larger picture, none are fabricated and there is, at the very least, a serious undertow of surplus morality as I depict it here.

Oil Price and Economic Growth Get Married

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on

It used to be that when it came to the world economy, oil prices and economic growth were more like distant cousins who disliked each other rather than a happily married couple always seen nuzzling together in public. The received wisdom was that low oil prices are good for the overall economy even if they are bad for the oil industry and for countries that are heavily dependent on oil for their revenues.

That's what many believed when suggesting that even though high oil prices and an attendant oil boom had underpinned economic recovery in the United States after the 2008 financial crash, low oil prices would now somehow on balance deliver even more recovery. And, low prices would also benefit the rest of the world as well.

Nowadays, as the oil price dips into the low $40 range again and economic growth weakens simultaneously, we must re-evaluate. U.S. economic growth declined significantly after oil prices began to fall in 2014. Only last week, U.S. growth for the second quarter of 2016 came in at 1.2 percent (annualized), less than half the forecast of 2.5 percent. First quarter growth was revised down to 0.8 percent from a previous estimate of 1.1 percent. That's down significantly from a peak of 5 percent growth for the third quarter of 2014, the last quarter during which the price of oil was over $100 per barrel.

World economic growth instead of speeding up, slowed down slightly from 2.6 percent in 2014 to 2.5 percent in 2015 according to the World Bank.

There are many reasons for the subpar growth of the world economy since the Great Recession. Record average daily prices for oil four years running from 2011 through 2014 helped sap the world economy of its strength by siphoning funds from the non-energy economy.

Of the other causes, chief of among them is the heavy buildup of private and public debt which may be hindering growth by siphoning funds from consumption and investment into debt service. In the first quarter of this year, U.S. credit growth was $644.9 billion. U.S. gross domestic product growth was $64.7 billion. It took $10 of credit growth for every $1 of GDP growth. There was a time long, long ago when the ratio was 1 to 1.

China's credit growth had been running twice its GDP growth through the end of last year. (I don't have dollar or yuan amounts.)

Debt isn't necessarily a bad thing if one uses it to invest in something that will produce goods or services rather than merely to consume. But much of our debt creation has been exactly for consumption. That isn't particularly bad either if we as individuals, nations or a world society can afford to service that debt. But there is a level we cannot afford and it stunts growth. To get a better understanding of how too much debt is affecting economic growth around the world, listen to economist Steve Keen explain why debt matters and how the rate of credit creation affects growth. You may need to watch it twice before you get the "aha" moment.

But let's look further now into the relationship between debt and energy to find out more about why oil prices seem much more correlated to the health of the overall economy than they used to be.

First, oil remains the central energy source for the world economy, especially critical as transportation fuel. It provides 33 percent of total energy according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Second, our desperation for additional sources of oil led to a debt-fueled boom in the United States, debt used by drilling companies to reach deep shale deposits and release oil found in them through a new version of hydraulic fracturing called high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing.

It turns out that the low oil prices of today make these deposits largely unprofitable and production has been falling. Many of the high-flying drillers during the boom are now in or headed for bankruptcy.

Debt, it must be remembered, is simply a way to bring what would be future consumption into the present. We have brought energy consumption from the future into the present with debt through the fracking boom in the United States and to a certain extent the boom in oil sands in Canada. And, we've shifted consumption of so many other natural resources and finished goods from the future to the present through the vast expansion of private and public debt.

Still, we are faced with slower world economic growth than in the past despite our herculean financial efforts. The simple explanation is that cheap energy was the cornerstone of growth of the industrial economy. As long as that energy was cheap, we could grow at a relatively rapid pace. Once it becomes expensive, growth must decline for most sectors of the economy as more and more resources are sent to the energy sector.

By this logic then today's low prices should be providing substantial stimulus to the global economy. Why are we not feeling it? The short answer would be that the debt we built up procuring expensive energy during a period of high and rising energy prices over the last 15 years is holding back economic growth. We are experiencing the hangover.

The hangover manifests itself as slow growth which is a reflection of the difficulty consumers are having maintaining their growth in spending in a high-debt world. That means everything is less affordable at the margin, and this has led to a creeping slowdown in the world economy.

Now, here's the kicker. If we as a global society can no longer afford high-priced oil--and that's what's left to get out of the ground--then as long as oil remains the central energy component of our economy, we will be trapped in a low- or no-growth economy where oil prices can't rise high enough to make new drilling in high-cost deposits profitable; and, when prices do rise, they simply squeeze the life out of economic growth and send the economy back into a stall or near stall. (Gail Tverberg has explained this phenomenon in detail on her blog, Our Finite World.)

Far from a sign of good things for the economy as whole, recently declining oil prices now tend to indicate a weakening economy that was already in a weak state. It turns out that the oil price and the economy are now in a very tight relationship, and we are going to be seeing them together a lot for a long time to come. But I don't think their marriage will be the happy one I alluded to at the beginning of this piece.

You Can't Handle the Truth

Written by Richard Heinberg

Originally posted on

Movie buffs will recognize this title as the most memorable line from “A Few Good Men” (1992), spoken by the character Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson (“You can’t handle the truth!” is #29 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top movie quotes).

I hereby propose it as the subtext of the recently concluded Republican and Democratic national conventions.

At this point most people appear to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong in the United States of America. But like the proverbial blind man describing the elephant, Americans tend to characterize the problem according to their economic status, their education and interests, and the way that the problem is impacting their peer group. So we hear that the biggest crisis facing America today is:

  • Corruption
  • Immigration
  • Economic inequality
  • Climate change
  • Lack of respect for law enforcement
  • Institutionalized racism
  • Islamic terrorism
  • The greed and recklessness of Wall Street banks
  • Those damned far-right Republicans
  • Those damned liberal Democrats
  • Political polarization

The list could easily be lengthened, but you get the drift. Pick your devil and prepare to get really, really angry at it.

In reality, these are all symptoms of an entirely foreseeable systemic crisis. The basic outlines of that crisis were traced over 40 years ago in a book titled The Limits to Growth. Today we are hitting the limits of net energy, environmental pollution, and debt, and the experience is uncomfortable for just about everyone. The solution that’s being proposed by our political leaders? Find someone to blame.

The Republicans really do seem to get the apocalyptic tenor of the moment: their convention was all about dread, doom, and rage. But they don’t have the foggiest understanding of the actual causes and dynamics of what’s making them angry, and just about everything they propose doing will make matters worse. Call them the party of fear and fury.

The Democrats are more idealistic: if we just distribute wealth more fairly, rein in the greedy banks, and respect everyone’s differences, we can all return to the 1990s when the economy was humming and there were jobs for everyone. No, we can do even better than that, with universal health care and free college tuition. Call the Democrats the party of hope.

But here’s the real deal: a few generations ago we started using fossil fuels for energy; the result was an explosion of production and consumption, which (as a byproduct) enabled enormous and rapid increase in human population. Burning all that coal, oil, and natural gas made a few people very rich and enabled a lot more people to enjoy middle-class lifestyles. But it also polluted air, water, and soil, and released so much carbon dioxide that the planet’s climate is now going haywire. Due to large-scale industrial agriculture, topsoil is disappearing at a rate of 25 billion tons a year; at the same time, expanded population and land use is driving thousands, maybe millions of species of plants and animals to extinction.

We extracted non-renewable fossil fuels using the low-hanging fruit principle, so that just about all the affordable petroleum (which is the basis for nearly all transport) has already been found and most of has already been burned. Since we can’t afford most of the oil that’s left (either in terms of the required financial investment or the energy required to extract and refine it), the petroleum industry is in the process of going bankrupt. There are alternative energy sources, but transitioning to them will require not just building an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels, but replacing most of the world’s energy-using infrastructure.

We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)

Hence the political primaries generated lots of feelings (anger, hope, fear), but revealed or conveyed almost no understanding of what’s actually going on, what’s in store, or what to do about it.

Now, I’m not proposing that the two parties are equivalent. There are some substantive differences between them. And in dangerous times, hope usually yields better outcomes than fear and rage (though hope is vulnerable to disillusionment and recrimination, which in turn lead back to fear and rage). Some of the Democrats’ ideas may help as we embark on our Great Slide down the steep slope of the Seneca cliff: for example, a universal basic income (not in the Democratic Party’s platform but consistent with its ideals) could provide a temporary safety net as the economy enters its inevitable long nosedive. Democrats at least acknowledge the problem of climate change, though they have few plans to do much about it (on this issue, the Republicans almost literally reside on a different planet). Meanwhile the Republicans’ reflex toward tribalism and division has the potential to turn social relations between America’s historically dominant European descendants and the nation’s various other ethnic groupings into a seething cauldron of hatred and violence.

But Democrats’ inability to provide a credible response to the zeitgeist of imperial decline could play into electoral defeat or failure either this time around or next. Trump offers a politics of isolationism and the image of the Strong Man, which may better fit the spirit of the times. True, any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast.

Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution. The decline of the British Empire was the backdrop for World War I, which led to an even bloodier reprise a couple of decades later. Today the foreign policy establishment in Washington appears eager to pick a fight with Russia, and Hillary Clinton has a track record of dangerous interventionism (she’s won the endorsement of neoconservative hawks—both Republican and Democrat—who pushed for the Iraq invasion of 2003). Trump, for all his rhetorical belligerence, seems perhaps a bit less bellicose internationally, though his eventual foreign policies are currently about as easy to read as a Rorschach ink blot.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is playing a peculiar role in the current contest. Trump and Putin have publicly complimented one another (one can only speculate as to the motives on both sides), while Hillary Clinton hews closely to the neocon-formulated State Department line that Putin is a dangerous strongman who threatens his neighbors. In fact, it is the US and NATO that have surrounded Russia with advanced weapons, reneged on agreements, and instigated regime change in Ukraine.

The Western powers’ ongoing provocation and demonization of Russia is pushing the world closer perhaps to nuclear war than was the case even during some decades of the Cold War. Against this frightening backdrop Trump has proposed (perhaps jokingly) that Russia hack Clinton’s emails. For her part, Clinton gives no indication that she will ratchet down the anti-Putin rhetoric; just the opposite appears to be in store—both during the campaign and the next four crucial years, when we are likely to face another (perhaps much worse) financial crisis along with escalating international tensions.

Could “we the people” handle a bit more of the truth? One would certainly like to think so. As it is, the US and the rest of the world appear to be sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm (a somewhat more geeky and less scatological way to describe it would be as the mother of all Dragon Kings). Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Bernie Sanders offered the best climate policies of any of the pre-convention candidates, but even he shied away from describing what’s really at stake. The times call for a candidate more in the mold of Winston Churchill, who famously promised only “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” in enlisting his people in a great, protracted struggle in which all would be called upon to work tirelessly and set aside personal wants and expectations. The candidates we have instead bode ill for the immediate future. Given the absence of helpful leadership at the national level, our main opportunity for effective preparation and response to the wolf at our doorstep appears to lie in local community resilience building.

It’s the truth. Can you handle it?


In Memory of William Beale

Our friend, mentor, and benefactor William Beale died on Sunday, July 24th, 2016.  It was a great privilege to know William, and to be uplifted by his passionate commitment,  his indefatigable creativity, and his intelligent humor. William was the first recipient of the Arthur Morgan Award, and a frequent contributor to our website under the name wimbi. You can read his last blog post, Poppy’s Dream, as well as other posts including, Fracked to Death, The (Bigger) Garden of EdenWE GOT PLENTY OF NOTHIN', ROI: Love of Money, The Future Speaks, Plenty of Oil, So What's the Story Here?, and Wimbi's Wedges. William Beale also appeared in videos for the Community Solutions Climate Solutions Video channel, speaking about electric cars and his work.   We’ll be including a tribute to William in our October conference, and would be glad to share our members’ memories with his family. 

ATHENS - William Taylor Beale, 88, died peacefully at home Sunday 24 July 2016 attended by his immediate surviving family – wife Carol and children Faith, Dan and John – and loving friends.  A lifelong inventor and philosophizer, it was William’s driving ambition to leave the world a better place on the basis of sound engineering and innovative thought.  Although he claimed never to have achieved the full extent of his intentions, his inventions were essential components of products on Earth and in Space, his company and its spinouts employed hundreds, and his philanthropic funding enabled local, regional and global extension and continuation of his visions.

Born to Katherine and David Beale on 17 April 1928 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the third of five siblings and the eldest of the three brothers. Self-described as a youth who was a “loner, a dreamer, and an inventor of unusually warlike things,” William segued from homemade artisan-well-diving equipment and road-asphalt bombs to early employment as a Naval radar technician during the final year of World War II.  He discovered in this engagement “the bloody waste of war games,” an assessment that carried through his educational career.  After achieving an MS from Caltech, including engaging in the study of intercontinental ballistic missiles, he “resolved, deep in his muddled soul, never to use this knowledge for its original intended purpose.”  He adhered absolutely to these principles, including strong activism and support of disengagement in military conflict during the Vietnam War; and later in rejection of a potential weapons development contract that would have succored his struggling small business, but ran against his deepest convictions regarding the essential role of rational and peaceful engagement between nations.

While achieving his second MS from MIT in Boston in 1958, William met and married Harvard graduate Carol Brand Beale, with whom he moved to Athens, Ohio in 1961 as a faculty member in Ohio University’s engineering department.  With family support, the couple purchased an old farmhouse on 300 acres of rolling, rural Appalachian woodland.  William aided Carol’s tireless maintenance and development of gardens and multiple livestock while himself maintaining the underlying technology, including the well and roof-water systems, the many generations of VW bugs, rabbits and buses, the 200-year-old barn and other outbuildings, and continually remodeling and improving the 100-year-old farmhouse.  The couple dedicated themselves to a carbon-free existence, and for the final decade of his life William continued to maintain and improve their woodstove-fired, hot-water-circulation system as well as their all-solar electrical system (which powered, in addition to the homestead, their proudly-so-labeled ‘Runs on the Sun’ electric Leaf vehicle).

William was an early member and literal builder of Athens Unitarian Fellowship, which for decades served, and continues to serve, as a welcoming location for lectures, plays, thoughts, and communal sharing by generations of families like his own.  

William’s 1964 invention of the free-piston Stirling engine was the impetus for founding Sunpower, Inc., a company dedicated to the before-its-time principle that engineering innovation in renewable-energy-derived power is a world-saving opportunity.  In perennial search of financial support for Sunpower’s rich intellectual property and multiple technical innovations, William traveled frequently to Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent, gaining and incorporating lessons- learned from international experts and experience.  In his Athens home office, Sunpower attracted global expertise to a strong young technical team and expanded its influence, over three and a half decades of continuing R&D, into cooling and cryocooling as well as continued engine development, prior to the family’s sale of the business in 2012.  

The business exit enabled William’s distribution of philanthropic dollars to local groups engaged in carbon footprint reduction business and research and outreach; to regional non-profits dedicated to community development and environmental conservation; and to multiple individual technology start-ups.

William always delighted in the education and encouragement of the next generation.  He included among his many mentorships a Saturday Science Seminar for local youth, several of whom went on to join the current generation of young technology startup entrepreneurs.  Many of William’s mentees cite his marked influence on their own sense of innate curiosity about the mathematical, physical and mechanical principles at work in the world around them.  Many also remember William’s perennial ‘kid test:’ the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and ensure continued success for all, or to compete and destroy one another.  William’s instructional game was, for many mentees and young relatives, a formative moment in their own perception of the role of cooperation and conflict resolution as favored tools in a fraught social fabric.  

William’s ‘Fables for our Time,’ published in local newspapers and online with Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio, perennially reinforced his messages that straightforward engineering and high-minded conservation are the basic underlying principles of a visionary life well-led.  William was a voracious reader and participant in vigorous ongoing conversations with friends, family, associates and passersby on these and related topics.  His favorite publication, re-read during his last days, was E.O. Wilson’s “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” a book incorporating many of William’s most passionate beliefs about the duties incumbent upon humans, as the greatest Earthly change factor, to preserve and protect the globe under their dominion. His most recent essays are accessible at

William is survived by his wife and three children and their spouses and partners, six grandchildren, two siblings Inez Harrell and David Beale and a broad local, regional and global network of family, friends and followers.  A public memorial service will be hosted by the Athens Friends Meeting in September. Contributions in William’s memory would be welcomed by organizations working on Carbon reduction goals such as Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio at ,  Union of Concerned Scientists at,  and Rural Action of Athens, Ohio at .

Poppy's Dream

Written by Community Solutions fellow wimbi

“Poppy’s Dream,” as narrated on the morning of July 24th 2016

Edited for written presentation by his daughter

I dreamt I went to a foreign country with my grandchild, who was teaching there, and everything I saw around me had a band of color on it. So I asked the young foreign person who was escorting us: 

“What is the color band?”  

She said: “You don’t have those?” 

“If I do, I never noticed.  What *is* the color band?” 

“That is the “Level of Requirement” for something really needed. So if some silly little object is not really needed, it’s got a color band close to black.  If it is needed - and we are talking about really needed, as in survival-needed – it’s banded with a lighter color, to easily identify it in the case of a catastrophe.  But if it’s banded black, then there’s no real need for it, and there’s no concern about what happens to it.”  

And I said:  “Oh, well, that’s very clever!”  And just from curiosity I went around look looking for these color bands.  I was surprised to note that many that were brightest had some sort of association with electricity.  I asked why that would be, and my guide said:

“If you have no electricity, you are desperate for just a little bit of it. In a real catastrophe, without electricity, you need even a small electrical source in order to communicate with other survivors.” 

I asked: “So in a catastrophe, what is your implementation plan for light-banded technology like electricity-producing items?” 

“Our people are trained to use primitive sources of electricity.  For example, high-tech solar photovoltaic panels works just fine to produce electricity, but the very primitive old Stirling engines of the last Century can turn even little sticks of wood into heat, and hence turn your woodfire into a source of electricity.”   

“That’s excellent thinking.  I don’t know how to make a photovoltaic cell, because it’s not on the level of village technology, but I do know how to make a very good steam engine, better than James Watt did -   or, in fact, a Stirling engine that will heat into electricity. Actually, I used to write lots of papers on free-piston Stirling engines that were made of nothing but ordinary things you could find in the trash pile.” 

And she said: “Yes; we can do that too!”

“So in that case, a trash pile should be marked with a light-colored band?” 

She laughed and pointed.  “There’s one, look at it.”

Sure enough, the trash pile was banded with a light color.

She explained: “We have done a lot of research about the situation, and for us, what you call a “trash pile” is, in fact, a treasure.” 

I said: “My gracious, that’s something I believe, but I didn’t think anyone else did.”

“Oh, they will when they think about it. Actually, an American trash pile is as good as gold; it has everything under the sun in it.  You can get a fridge, or a fully-functioning gen set, or any manner of useful things.” 

“Well that’s true, but in America people don’t realize that.  They have no concern for a trash pile.  People just throw away anything at all without thinking about it.  So overall, this banding is an excellent thing.  Tell me: how do you actually do this here; who decides how to color-band items?”  

“Every community has a Council of Experts who write down all the things they could do with each thing and decide on colors.” 

And I said, just out of the blue because I thought of it: “How do you band-color a cooking pot?”  

She laughed and said:  “Oh, a cooking pot.  There are so many cooking pots that we put them somewhere in the middle of the color-banding, not because they’re not extremely valuable, but because they’re so many being made.  In other words: if today a catastrophe happens, and I need cooking pots, I think I could say that everyone in our country has a cooking pot.” 

“Hmm.  I suppose you could said the same thing for the American automobile.  Outside every American house, there’s a car, and when they get old, people just get a new one.” 

“Here there would be a car remodeling place; cars would not be a throw-away item.  Here, we can easily last decades without any new manufacture, just remodeling, recycling and - very important - restructuring old items scientifically.” 

“Well that’s all wonderful. What I’m realizing is that what you people are doing now is what we should be doing in the near future.  And besides that, I said, I am no judge for any of this. I have a limited experience.

She said “Yes, it’s perfectly clear that you do!” 

I laughed, and suggested: “How about this idea: your little village in your country get together with some equivalent little village in America, and we match communities into an ‘adopted towns’ scheme.”

She got pretty enthusiastic about this and said: “Yes, that would work for us!  And partnering communities can make joint decisions on whether a cooking pot is a grey or a green or a black band.  And this way we can all hope not only to become friends and share experiences, but to become the future.”

I nodded and added:  “It would be super-great if my grandchild came back from your country with some sort of long-living interaction between the first two villages.”

She agreed: “Absolutely!  How exactly should we work together to do this?” 

And I said:  “Over to you.”

Beyond the Zombie Economy

Written by Johanna Montgomerie

Originally published on

Economic metaphors are important to illustrate the distinct features of specific economic systems that exist at particular times. The Great Depression, for instance, uses a psychological framing of ‘depression’ to depict the dynamics of an economic system incapable of recovering from financial collapse. The present day metaphor is the ‘Zombie’ economy depicting the economic system as an unthinking monster in relentless pursuit of a single objective – here, short-term profits are synonymous with human brains. This builds on from the well-used ‘Zombie Banks’ metaphor made popular in the 2000s to describe the Japanese financial system, in which endless public subsidies to banks resulted in systemic erosion of economic vitality - the lesson was feeding the Zombie only breeds more.

There are, of course, other metaphors used to describe contemporary capitalism; like the ‘Vampire Squid’ used to illustrate the role of financial institutions in sucking the life out of the global economy. Sanguineous metaphors are very popular historically for depicting the role of finance within the economy as ‘bleeding it dry’; the Vampire, like the Zombie, is a monster with a singular rational objective ‘to feed’ and the humans are always its prey. Of course, Keynes preferred the ‘animal spirits’ metaphor to explain the same inhumane aspects of markets that must be controlled to sustain a market civilization.

Two books in particular articulate different aspects of the Zombie economy metaphor. The fist is John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics: how dead ideas still walk among us, which systematically unpicks how defunct economic theories are clung to by policy makers and politicians. Here, what is dead is the ideas and theories that created our current economic malaise; yet despite all the evidence to show these ideas don’t work, they do not die, they stay alive animated by the mystical power of the Central Bank. The second book by Kerry-Anne Mendoza, Austerity: the demolition of the welfare state and rise of the Zombie economy, uses the Zombie metaphor to explain how banks are feasting on interest payments from mounting debt stock and eventually consumers, tax-payers and the nation state will eventually exist solely to service these loans. What is dead is the securitization food chain, because it creates no value, and its dependence on a single-food source – our interest payments – means the Zombies must seek out new food sources in the welfare state using Private Finance Initiatives.

What we see in both Quiggin and Mendoza is the Zombie Economy as both dead idea and dead business model. Together they articulate the profound structural crisis that manifests as the Zombie Economy created by unfettered financialised expansion. Whether it’s the unfeeling monster in pursuit of its prey or homoeconomicus – the singular focus on short-term profit maximization means the Zombie apocalypse will not end with spontaneous growth or a moment of enlighted self-interest.

As Chuck Prince, then CEO of Citigroup, said in July 2007: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” These words are the rallying cry of the Zombie army, as long as Central Banks keep interest rates low to negative and there is a blank cheque or a bazooka option (a public ‘unquantified’ risk guarantee) and governments remain committed to step-in and provide direct bailouts, asset buy-back schemes and support rounds of Quantitative Easing then all financial actors - from the ‘originate and distribute’ banks, to investment banks, to new financial actors like Private Equity funds - will keep on making short-term profits regardless of the wider structural crisis going in on the wider economy. 

The reality is the Zombie economy is firmly entrenched by the vested interests that benefit most from it, however it is still fighting for its survival. Nancy Fraser puts it plainly that contemporary global capitalism is facing a ‘triple crises’: “It is the convergence of these three strands – the ecological, the financial and the social – that constitutes the distinctive character, and special severity, of the present crisis.” Zombies in pursuit of short-term profit, whether it’s the algorithmic trader trying to make a profits in a millisecond or the CEO seeking to pump and dump his stock options to make a better bonus, cannot solve the very real problems our economy and society face. Nor do they want to!

Therefore, to move beyond the Zombie Economy we must begin with financialised growth, which like all growth models, has absolute limits. The first limit is ecological, the absolute carrying capacity of the earth cannot support ever-expanding growth. This stark reality is simply ignored by the Zombie hoards because it will not happen in the short-term, if it won’t affect quarterly earnings or yearly bonuses it does not register as relevant.

The second limit is financial, the business model of endlessly supplying cheap credit to generate more interest payments to securitize onto global markets and inflate asset prices did work for a decade or so, but now the problems of non-performing loans and hugely over-valued fictional assets are clear: the 2008 financial crisis was triggered by a tiny fraction of global lending – the US subprime market – which set off a maelstrom across global financial markets. A more heavily indebted global economy than 2008 makes finding outlets for more performing loans ever more difficult, this ensures that financialisation cannot keep going without more frequent financial crises followed by ever-larger bailouts.

The final limit is the social or how much the overall population is capable of reproducing the economic and cultural conditions that facilitate financialised economic activity. For example, are debtors (those providing the interest payments to Zombies) able to work and earn enough to service their debts? Are taxpayers willing to keep subsidizing an unreformed financial sector while accepting real-terms cuts to services and transfers from the government? Are people willing to go into ever more debt to get a University education and/or buy a home, or just to consume and live in an economy where average earnings are the same as two decades ago? What happens when the global consumers-of-last-resort in North America and Europe can no longer take on debt to buy every new product emitted from the global supply chain?

The answers to these questions could inform the political route out of this mess. Otherwise the Zombie Apocalypse will not just be a movie title it will be the economic metaphor of our time.

It’s not just that the evidence shows the Zombie economy does not work or that it is causing more problems than it solves; it is the unrecognised threat from how the ideas and metaphors that inform the Zombie Economy live on despite of their abject failures. Concepts like ‘trickle down economics’, ‘privatization’ and ‘efficient markets’ are all still prolific within elite policy and political circles – this is a very real problem. Without new ideas and concepts to move beyond the Zombie economy we are left only to fight the unfeeling, unthinking hoard only with more appeals to reason, logic and evidence. 

A new set of ideas and proposals are needed to address the triple crisis we face today; this requires a great deal more than simply reviving old models of industrialised expansion that solved the crises of yesteryear. Crafting an alternative set of ideas and politics begins by building a shared agenda to dismantle financialisation and build an inclusive economy capable of overcoming the ecological, economic and social threats created by the Zombie Economy.