Moving Beyond “Too Little, Too Late” Solutions: A renewed look at soil and water cycles is necessary to aid in planetary healing and justice

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Peter Bane

Soil and water cycles have been systematically overlooked by climate scientists seeking the causal mechanism for global heating. Though climbing carbon and methane in the atmosphere undoubtedly contribute to heating the planet, their rising levels appear to be more a symptom than a cause—resulting from enormous human-made changes to soils and vegetation that have disrupted the small water cycle or evapotranspiration of water from land to sky.  Vegetation in the form of forests, grasslands, and wetlands has regulated the climate through many swings of CO2 levels.  However, the cumulative impact of 10,000 years of forest removal, agricultural degradation of soils, draining of wetlands, and urbanization—accelerating exponentially over the past three centuries—has so damaged the biosphere’s capacity to exhaust heat that we are rapidly approaching a threshold beyond which it may not be possible to reverse the process.

The science underpinning this thesis is not radical, being familiar to all school students—plants transpire large volumes of moisture, the latent heat of vaporization is immense, and these effects reach into the upper atmosphere—but its implications have been hidden in plain sight for some decades, in part because climate scientists have assumed that measuring the effects of these diffuse actions would be too difficult. Moreover, increasing activity in the large water cycle—which moves moisture from the oceans onto land and has become so very destructive with larger and larger storms—is probably masking declines in evapotranspiration over land. What is being realized today is that the level of moisture in the atmosphere is not constant, and may be as much as ten times the volume of water to be found in all Earth’s rivers. Nor is the outflow from continents to the sea a constant, but has steadily increased as forests are cleared, soil humus is oxidized, and pavement expands. The net outflow of water from the continents, exclusive of glacial outwash, may account for as much as 40% of sea level rise in the past half-century, an increase that has reached about 2-3 mm/year today. This is compounding problems not only of coastal flooding but of aridification across the globe.

The required response to this information, which radically shifts the paradigm around climate, is similar to what some have suggested heretofore, that carbon sinks must be increased even as carbon sources are reduced. The Rodale Institute has recently published research indicating that global changes to agriculture could sequester more carbon than is now entering the atmosphere from all human sources—and their solutions are neither the only nor the most powerful available.

However, reducing atmospheric carbon will be insufficient by itself to alter global heating in the near term (5-15 years), which is where our actions must be focused. Climate change is rapidly approaching a non-linear state due to positive feedback mechanisms.


Carbon sequestration in the form of soil repair and revegetation will be required to restore the small water cycle over land, but if sequestration becomes the goal without regard for hydrology, those efforts may be insufficient to alter the trajectory of global warming. We need our actions to have multiple effects. What this means is that carbon must be captured by plants and soils rather than from smokestacks as now proposed by technological ideologues. If we can repair the damage we have wreaked on biotic communities, the beneficial effects on the water cycle may achieve what we must try at all costs to do: prevent further heating and reverse the trend of recent decades.

The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions will be examining and publicizing research and case studies of carbon sequestration and water cycle restoration through blogs, a 2017 conference in collaboration with Bio4Climate, and an upcoming book upon which I am presently at work.

What are the Essential Elements for Successfully Building Community Resilience?

Originally posted on

Written by Asher Miller

Introducing Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience, PCI’s new report which describes how communities can approach the full scope of the 21st century’s challenges equitably and sustainably.

It’s all too easy to look at the news these days and find an instant reminder of how vulnerable, and in some cases broken, our communities are—whether the risks they face are due to terrorism, natural disasters, economic struggles, dilapidated infrastructure, or a dozen other disruptive forces. I could quickly provide some examples, torn from this week’s headlines, but if you’re reading this a month, a year, or decade from now it’s likely the task will be just as easy.

This is partly true, of course, because vulnerability has always been part of human communities. But in this age of global interconnectedness, those vulnerabilities are not only more complex and systemic, they’re chronic.

Since Post Carbon Institute’s formation a little over a decade ago, we’ve seen interest in building community resilience skyrocket—from the early days of the grassroots relocalization and Transition movements, in response to concerns about climate change and peak oil, to the more recent initiatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the United Nations to prepare cities for acute disasters.

In particular, interest in building climate resilience has grown exponentially since Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. Northeast in 2012, and as the need for climate adaptation, not just mitigation, has become more and more evident.

Having ourselves promoted community resilience for years, we’ve been pleased to see the concept of resilience being embraced by a diverse collection of grassroots groups, government agencies, politicians, and philanthropists. But we’re also eager to ensure that community resilience building isn't simply adopted an aspirational goal divorced of concrete strategies, or as a strategy to “bounce back” from one specific set of disruptions to a normal state that no longer exists.

Thankfully, resilience science—in particular the field of socio-ecological resilience—offers a treasure trove of invaluable insights and resources. And in just the last few years a number of useful frameworks and tools have been developed which aim to support local efforts. But, we’ve learned, some of the best thinking about community resilience can be hard to find or understand outside academia, and no single approach is likely to work in all communities considering their varied social, environmental, and economic realities.

So we set out to read everything we could get our hands on, to speak with experts in the field of socio-ecological resilience and innovative resilience builders from communities across the United States and abroad, and to draw upon our own learnings… all in order to see if we could glean any key insights that would be useful for local leaders and activists in the United States, and contribute to the larger conversation about resilience in human communities. The result of this effort is Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably hoping I’ll share those six foundations with you right here, right now. But instead I’m going to ask you to set aside thirty minutes and read the full paper, lest these six foundations become buzzwords all to easy to dismiss or forget.

We are also eager to hear from you, dear reader—who clearly cares as much as we do about strengthening our communities in response to the interconnected crises of the 21st century. Please read Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience and then share your thoughts on these and other questions:

Do you find the approach in Six Foundations helpful? 
What aspects of the report are useful? 
What would you change? 
What real-life examples of community resilience building are you inspired by? 
What related research and scholarly work do you know about? 
What kinds of related resources would be helpful for students? For grassroots activists?

Your feedback will help PCI as we roll out new projects over the next few years, one of which will be a tool to help grassroots activists use the Six Foundations in their work.

I hope you're as excited as I am about this report, the start of a major new PCI effort to help scale and strengthen community resilience building efforts across the United States.

Review: 21 Stories of Transition and the Great Imagining: Why Transition Matters

Originally posted on

Written by Eric Lindberg

Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Paris

In December, representatives from governments from across the Earth will descend upon Paris in hopes, once again, of hammering out a global agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions to the point where human civilization might expect a reasonable chance of survival.  Although there is greater urgency that ever and growing consensus that “something must be done”, no one really expects a meaningful, enforceable, and ultimately effective agreement to emerge from Paris.   Even if an agreement is reached, judging from the pre-summit carbon pledges of 147 nations, proposed reductions are not nearly enough to prevent a 2 degrees centigrade rise in global temperature.[i]  Just as carbon emissions continued to rise after Rio, Kyoto, and Copenhagen, it is hard to imagine how the Paris summit might represent a true turning point, even as we move closer and closer to a point of no return.

Meanwhile, in villages, neighborhoods, and communities, large and small, from across the globe, action is being taken and hope, nevertheless, lives on.   Countless groups and organizations are heeding history’s call and taking matters into their own hands.  With open hearts, open hands, and open minds, people on every continent and from every walk-of-life are coming together to create real solutions.  They are sharing, cooperating, helping, and taking responsibility for the future.  The global ecological and resource crisis, as our official leaders regularly demonstrate, could easily incite retrenchment, competition, and the fearful protection of privileges that will ultimately mean nothing.  But it could, as ordinary people are proving, be the inspiration for a great imagining unlike any the world has ever seen. 

It is this Great Imagining, in the face of a global crisis and official paralysis, that I want to talk about here.  I hope, even plea, that my friends, acquaintances, and readers will take another look, while asking themselves, “what can I do?”  “How can I be a part of this?”

The grassroots response to climate change, resource depletion, growing inequality, and widespread global injustice comes from every quarter.  But one of the greatest sources of inspiration has originated from the International Transition Movement, a loosely-united assembly of communities following the lead of a humble and mild-mannered English community organizer, teacher, and leader of considerable genius named Rob Hopkins.  About a decade ago, Hopkins set out to imagine how we might build just and sustainable communities that would serve the real needs of everyone.   The result was first a Transition Town, and then another.  Following these heartening initiatives, Hopkins put together The Transition Handbook, whose message of community, local resilience, and the good life that renewed communities might afford remains intact throughout the revision of approach and tactics seen during the intervening years.

In advance of this year’s international climate conference (COP21), Hopkins has assembled into a single collection 21 Stories of Transition, highlighting some of the accomplishments that Transition Groups from around the globe have made.   Hopkins changed my life with his Transition Handbook and I’m getting that feeling, once again, that the 21 Stories might provide another watershed moment for me.  It’s time to make another big push here in Milwaukee. 

Beyond Carbon

Read in the context of the Paris Negotiations on climate change, the 21 Stories are hardly what one might expect.  But that is the hidden genius of the Transition Movement.  Sustainability, as Pope Francis has recently argued, is not just about atmospheric chemistry rather it calls for a new paradigm that integrates the ecology of all life with social justice and an inner transformation of human beings away from competition and consumption towards full and authentic development.  In this vein, Hopkins and his collaborators share accounts of a caring group in Devonshire, the rise of alternative currencies in communities such like Brixton and cities like Bristol.  There are accounts of community-driven and financed energy collectives, and lots of tales of local food production and distribution; Transition Streets, like many of the featured projects, are geared towards neighborhoods uniting to find a way to reduce their carbon footprints.  But equally important are stories of rainwater harvesting in the Brazilian megatropolis of Sao Paulo, a repair café in Pasadena, a Free Store in Pennsylvania, or the growing emphasis on crowd-funded local entrepreneurs.  

One especially inspiring story tells of Greyton Transitioning Town in South Africa.  Here, local volunteers have built two businesses, which are used in large part to finance an “EcoCrew environmental awareness programme,” focusing on educating children and giving them a leading role in the creation of local food, parks, and recycling activities.  One of its most significant roles, however, is the social integration in this part of the world in which the open wounds of apartheid are widely visible.  Although the commitment to the environment is central, as with many Transition projects, the most impressive results come in the form of small-scale civic development, of a child finding purpose, or a circle of care gathering up the lonely. 

As Hopkins explains, this sort of caring community and concern with social justice are central to Transition’s ideals, as are principles of supporting each other, with a focus on “qualities like enjoyment, self-development, a sense of belonging and the dignity in work” (Twenty One Stories, 13).  The installation of solar panels or wind turbines makes immediate sense if our most pressing challenge is to decrease the burning of fossil fuels, and it takes only a primer on the role of fossil fuels in industrial agriculture to see why small-scale local farms and community gardens loom so large in the imagination of the Transition Movement and in the 21 Stories. 

But the emphasis on community, the celebration of place, or the enhancement of human dignity, helps explain why Transition ranges far beyond issues of carbon emissions.  It is in this spirit that we hear about a Free Store, in which people donate what they don’t need and take what they do.  The same goes for an account of people in Pasadena showing up periodically to darn each other’s socks and straighten someone’s bike tire, or Transition Totnes’ grass-roots attempt to augment dwindling county services for the sick and needy.  Yes, the reusing and repair of existing products is “good for the environment,” but the value of community action is worth far more.

About the Carbon

It is easy—perhaps too easy—to fault our official leaders with cowardice and inaction.  But when we send national representatives to an international global warming summit, they are sent with an impossible mandate:  protect our national privilege (or increase it), preserve our way of life and our every expectations for increased material acquisition, maintain the economic growth required to keep national banking systems intact—oh yeah, and cut domestic carbon emissions (but not more than others nations are willing to cut theirs).   

We blame our leaders for their shortsighted calculations.  But part of the reason these climate agreements fail to make meaningful change is simpler than is generally acknowledged, and lives, hidden and unseen, in both the hearts and homes of nearly every citizen of advanced economies and industrialized democracies.  It is about what we want, expect, and demand.  It is not possible to maintain our way of life, maintain economic growth, and cut carbon emissions.  Nor is it possible to engage in competitive statecraft and reduce the burning of fossil fuels.   

There is, then, a crucial nugget of truth, largely ignored in the mainstream press, in what we have gotten from Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and probably Paris: a sustainable future requires a contracting economy, a slowing down of production, and a broad curtailment of individual consumption.  If our leaders presented us with this, they’d be hung by their heals in the village square.  We want our leaders to cut global carbon emissions; but we also want a way of life that only fossil fuels can deliver.  Until we understand the contradiction and begin to untangle the complexities of a transition to a low energy way of life, we should not expect too much from our elected governments.

Consider, as a sort of mental exercise, what would happen if we were to switch off the fossil fuels and run on available renewables as of today: as it turns out, we’d have to reduce our consumption by about 90%.  That means getting rid of 90% of what you have and 90% of what you do and where you go.   Develop these renewables at a plausible rate, on the one hand, and reduce our atmospheric carbon emissions at a meaningful rate (the one at which we and other large mammals may survive at a robust level), on the other, and we’re looking at a 75% reduction in economic activity over the long and permanent run.   We might quibble about the exact figures; but there is no question of running our current, competitive, growth-dependent, and leisure-based way of life without the use of fossil fuels—those same fossil fuels that will kill us off if we cannot kick these habits of competition, growth, and, leisure in the form, mainly, of consumption.[ii]

Sure, we hear the promises of “sustainable development” and “green growth.”  The abiding faith—or is it the lack of any plausible alternatives?—is that we can take our current systems of production and distribution and plug them into a new (sustainable and consequence-free) fuel source with only minimum disruptions.  But, at the same time, international carbon-cutting agreements are rejected for one, and only one, reason: that they will hurt our economies, slow down the rate at which we make, buy, and sell goods.  These agreements will force compliant nations to lose their competitive advantage to nations that don’t comply.   

We may like the idea of an international climate agreement, but we probably wouldn’t like consequences of a meaningful one.  And so our leaders give us a watered-down and face-saving compromise.  Our way of life and our national power and prestige, it turns out, is fossil fuel based.   We can’t have it both ways.  “Your money or your life,” Barbara Kingsolver once quipped, “is not supposed to be a rhetorical question.”  But that, in effect, is the decision we have to make, but have been unwilling to accept. 

Viable Alternative Systems

Our current systems, as Hopkins puts it, “are meant to support and provide for us, and to enable us to flourish and thrive” (9).  But they cannot survive in a low carbon or sustainable world.  This is the basic knot that must be untied for us to get a real climate solution.   As Hopkins rightly points out, these systems are already “failing us spectacularly,” but if we remove the fuels--coal, gas, and oil--which provide them with what remaining benefits they have, they would fail us entirely.  This is true even if we attempt to make a slow transition to new fuels, while attempting to keep the old systems in place.   As a practical matter, we don’t have the capacity to feed, cloth, and house ourselves without massive use of fossil fuels.  Our current systems, let me say again, cannot survive in a low carbon world.  We need new systems.

We are of course talking, here, about things like a food system run on an industrial model, which requires massive fossil fuel inputs, while poisoning us with sugars, toxins, and fats.  We are talking about an economic system based on perpetual growth, a social system based largely on competition, an education system that trains children to make money rather than things, a system of technological development that accepts no limits, and a list could go on and on.  Yes, these systems have created some verifiable marvels, but our appreciation of them also requires that we bracket-off their collateral damage and disconnect their spectacles from their lethal nature.  For all these other systems are high-energy systems.  They can work quite well, if unevenly, but only if fed with limitless amounts of consequence-free fossil fuels.   All our modern industrial systems, this is to say, are dependent on the mother of unsustainable systems—the energy system that, quite literally, is threatening to do us all in.

While the best and the brightest attempt to hold these failing and clearly lethal systems together with a high-sounding and self-impressive version of duct tape and bailing wire, Rob Hopkins and the Transition Movement set out over a decade ago to engineer replacement systems that might actually work under lower energy conditions.  As Hopkins as recently written, “It is to building that viable alternative that I put my shoulder.  It is celebrating that viable alternative that will be the focus of my time in Paris in December.”[iii] 

Instead of finding support and nurture from systems requiring chemical inputs, intricate parts manufactured across the world, and panels of technological specialists flown in from the nearest city, these “viable alternative” systems are overwhelmingly local.  They are powered by muscle and basic tools, and require no more specialization than one might find in one’s neighborhood.  They replace wizardry with local wisdom, and at root are based on the lost arts of community and cooperation, with which almost anything of immediate use and simple beauty might be nailed, stitched, and mortared together.

The easiest of these replacement systems to grasp is the food system, perhaps because food’s fundamental status remains embedded in our sense of self, despite the best efforts of the packaging, the branding, and the barrage of advertising harassment telling us to eat the corn-fructose combination with the tiger mascot instead of the one represented by the cute bears.  Instead of depending for one’s daily bread on the whims of international finance and commodity markets, Monsanto intellectual property, and a whole heap of chemicals we can scarcely pronounce, let alone digest, most people will often gravitate towards a local food system when given the chance.  Growing food, after all, is something humans have done for millennia, and a local and sustainable food system only requires simple things that we can see, smell, touch, and, of course, taste.   But producing enough to live on also requires practice, hard work and commitment, as well as some fundamental changes in the overall economy.

Simplicity, common sense, and community self-reliance, nevertheless, are the hallmark of the 21 Stories,as well as the thousands of projects not featured in the book.   Instead of waiting for someone to build a 250 miles per gallon super-car, why not get out the old bike?  Instead of waiting for some new ultra-green nano-technology to do all our daily slicing, dicing, pressing, closing, communicating, heating, and cooling, why not find someone who can sharpen your knives, solder that loose wire, lend you a fan, or fix your windows?  Instead of shipping some faddish culinary delicacy from the South Pacific, why not prepare salvaged food that someone else is throwing away?  Instead of stretching your tight household budget to include gym membership and special energy shakes, why not get together with your neighbors, dig in, plant a garden and keep a few chickens?  Instead of waiting for the next financial crisis and the sudden loss of a lifetime of savings and investment, why not create a local currency with which you can buy and sell some of life’s basic necessities no matter what else happens?

From this perspective, the rise of local currencies, the Pasadena Repair Café or Fishguard’sSurplus Food Café begin to look less like counter-cultural pottering and more like a serious attempt to find something that can, and will, work.  The rise of local farms, food markets, community gardens are only the tip of the iceberg of this imaginative reengineering of our life systems.  The creation not only of local currencies, but a whole network of local and community based responses to the increasingly undependable whims of the global economy, of government budget cuts, and unpredictable employment lies at the heart of Transition.  One of its keywords has always been “local resilience.”  While the terms of Transition’s resilience-based self-description tend to be based in the language of care, or small-scale entrepreneurial innovation, or community action, or the envisioning of a better future for one’s family and neighbors, underlying it all is a serious questions: how could you get by on an energy diet one fourth the size of your current one?  What would you do if the trucks stop running or the banks shut down?  Who can you turn to for help? 


The Great Imagining

If, however, we suppose that the power of the Transition Movement lies primarily in its practical ability to engineer and implement new, replacement systems, then we sell it far too short.  The genius of the Transition Movement, it seems to me, is more subtle yet also more fundamental.   It presents a fresh and alternative way of seeing—and of valuing.  It has not only imagined a new set of possibilities, it has taken the next crucial step and created working models for the rest of the world to see.  The 21 Stories represent only a selection of these working prototypes and provide a taste of this other way of seeing, valuing, and relating to others and the Earth.

This way of seeing is the most important component that has been missing from international climate agreements.

Social psychologists have wondered at the resistance of many conservatives in the Anglo Saxon world to the science of global climate change.  What force of denial could lead to the dismissal of undisputed science?  The conclusions of this psychological research tell us something very important about belief and social and political change in general.  The greatest source of conservative denial is not, as some would have it, based on their inability to accept the scientific evidence.  Rather, it has to do with a more general picture about how the world works and should work that conservatives hold dear.   As Naomi Klein has suggested, if conservatives “admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”[iv]

Liberals, in contrast, have (as conservatives like to point out) been arguing for decades that we need to manage our economy more vigorously.  The idea of an international agreement whereby governments cap carbon emissions and invest public money in renewable energy is not only acceptable to many liberals, it actually represents a form of progress that liberals have been hoping for all along, with liberal economists like Paul Krugman naively arguing that a renewable energy revolution is just what we need to spark our economy and ignite another century of economic growth.  To put this another way, using another term from social psychology, while liberals tend to like the solutions (as they conceive them) to climate change, conservatives have a distinct case of solution aversion, which is strong enough to taint any associated scientific evidence.   So repugnant is a solution that threatens the sanctity of the market that they can’t bring themselves to accept that there is a problem in the first place.

This same dynamic can, surprisingly, be seen in the same liberals who are celebrating the idea of international climate agreements.  Although they are jubilant at the prospect of investing public money in clean energy or fashioning a “New Deal” based on energy transformation, their disposition turns sour—and even downright nasty—when these same anti-denialists are confronted with the possibility that wind turbines and solar panels will not be able to replace the power (and the economic growth) we have enjoyed from fossil fuels.  Regardless of the data and mathematical evidence, these same critics of conservative climate deniers often reject anynotion of the limits of renewable energy on the veryface of it, supposing (I can attest first hand) that anyone who even suggests such a possibility must be an enemy of humanity itself.

Part of this incredulity has to do with the liberal faith in continued progress, the power of human inventiveness, and the overriding hope that all people might one day be freed from kinds of difficulties and indignities that the middle class European and American lifestyle seems to afford.  Part of it has to do with most middle-class people’s dislike of a solution in which middle class comforts and privileges and white-collar skillsets play a decreasingly central role.  That we might become more agrarian and less automated or more interdependent and less autonomous, that traditional inhibitions on the freedom of consumption might have some sense to them after all, that Silicon Valley might be turned someday into pasture—all this  strikes many a progressive as the height of defeat or regression into a dark past.   Progress has always (or for a few hundred years, at least) meant the transition from agriculture to industry, and from industry to some largely imaginary global technological post-industrialism.  Few are prepared to embrace an international climate agreement that threatens this trajectory—which, it turns out, a meaningful limit on carbon emissions would, in fact, do. 

 I am tempted to say that liberals, like conservatives, are suffering from solution aversion; but I think we are dealing with something even more fundamental than that.  It is not so much that they (like just about everyone else in industrial society, liberal and conservatives alike) would not accept a solution that involves the powering down of industrial society; rather, for most, this is simply unimaginable.  If we can’t live with current levels of comfort, convenience, choice, mobility, and leisure, we may just as well give up.  Only a plan that promises increased industrial development and lower carbon emissions is, according to this view, conceivably acceptable.  No such plan exists, nor can it.  Industrial development and sustainability are incompatible, the liberal faith in green growth notwithstanding.  

This is where Transition and its Great Imagining can step in.  Transition, with other similar movements, has recast the very notion of progress, value, and good.  They have shown how the thriving of humans is not dependent upon industrial development, and therefore, has demonstrated how human well-being is, in every sense, compatible with radically decreasing use of fossil fuels It presents a solution to climate change which might overcome the initial aversion that liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between all have for anything other than industrial development.  As Hopkins explains, “The systems that are meant to support and provide for us, and to enable us to flourish and thrive, are failing spectacularly.  This is increasingly self-evident to people, wherever they are within those systems.  Yet all over the world, in creative, passionate, and brave ways, and motivate by a tangible sense of what is possible, people are coming together to create something else.  Something so much better” (9).    Whether or not Hopkins was thinking in precisely these terms when he wrote this, these people are providing an alternative that imagines the unimaginable while easing solution aversion.

This, I think, is why when I first read the Transition Handbook in 2008, it took my breath away; it was a revelation--for it at once presented a clear and unvarnished understanding of our current predicament in relation to fossil fuels and their lethal side effects, alongside a positive and hopeful vision for a future free from our current and unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels.  Previously, I too would have had blank mental spaces for a world in which we had not replaced our energy from fossil fuels with some alternative.  Nothing existed outside of this possibility beyond some hazy and disconnected images of stranded vehicles and abandoned buildings.  The Transition Handbook filled these blank spaces with life. 

As Hopkins wrote in The Transition Handbook, “the key message here has been that the future with less oil could be better than the present, but only if we engage in designing it with sufficient creativity and imagination” (77).  This better future, then, is not better only because it isn’t lethal to the very viability of our species, but because it can create just, humane, cooperative, and community systems in which we might truly thrive.  Or as Richard Heinberg put it, even as energy and the economy come to an industrial peak, there are many things of even greater value that are not at their historic peaks, things such as community, satisfaction from work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, or beauty of the built environment.[v]  The Transition Movement reminded me of the power of community, the value and pleasure of manual labor, the basic fact that things don’t make people happy—nor do comforts.  Rather, other people do, as does a sense of purpose, something to believe in and to celebrate.  None of these more basic human goods required fossil fuels, nor substitute wind turbines or biodiesel. 

This, in short, is the message that the Transition Movement has for COP21 and for the rest of the world—that we can re-envision a bountiful world that is compatible with the environmental and atmospheric requirements of life on Earth.  21 Stories of Transition shows us what this world might possibly look like.  It shows that it is not only possible, but that it is already underway and that those who are taking action are thriving and are full of life, purpose, and joy.

Dark Gold: The Human Shadow and the Global Crisis

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Carolyn Baker

Dark Gold: The Human Shadow And The Global Crisis endeavors to educate, challenge, and most importantly inspire the reader to engage with the shadow as a necessary first step in both individual and collective healing. It emphasizes and elaborates on the abundant emotional and spiritual treasures that invariably issue from shadow exploration and transformation. Dark Gold challenges us to become courageous enough to be accountable and compassionate enough to love ourselves and the earth community fiercely, even when we feel it will make no difference.

This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.

~William Shakespeare~

Why would any author intending to sell books write one about the shadow? Why would anyone already aware of the unprecedented severity of the global crisis want to read a book on the shadow? Wouldn’t this reader prefer the “catastrophe respite” of indulging in a book offering the hopeful consolation of radiant light and love?

Such questions arise from modernity’s polarization of light and dark, love and adversity. In fact, this is a book of consolation, light, and love, but it does not lay out the culturally expected trajectory toward these values.  The reader will not be able to grasp this, however, unless they are willing to dance with paradox---a reality with which the title, “Dark Gold” is replete.

The first concern that may arise is that this book has been written to shame the reader, perpetuating the notion that perhaps if one is sufficiently overwhelmed with guilt, one will realize the error of one’s ways and shape up. After all, isn’t that the Calvinistic American way? Indeed, shame is not the response I desire, but rather, the cultivation of love, wholeness, and relatedness with all living beings, for when the shadow remains unexamined and unintegrated in the human psyche, these experiences are virtually impossible or at least hollow, muted, and significantly less vibrant than they might become with a more robust integration of the shadow. James Hillman writes that “Loving oneself is no easy matter just because it means loving all of oneself, including the shadow where one is inferior and socially so unacceptable. The care one gives this humiliating part is also the cure.” [Meeting The Shadow: The Hidden Power of The Dark Side Of Human Nature, Edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1991, p.242]

Carl Jung is said to have proclaimed on many occasions that the human shadow is eighty-percent pure gold---in part, Jung’s response to the Freudian perspective that humanity’s dark side had absolutely no redeeming qualities. Conversely, Jung argued that rather than writing off our inner darkness as hopelessly irredeemable, we can choose to explore, excavate, and mine it because therein lie priceless riches of love and compassion. Or has Hillman would say, “…rotten garbage is also the fertilizer.” [Ibid, p. 243]

But what is the human shadow? Mythologist and student of Jung, Joseph Campbell, states that “The Shadow is, so to say, the blind spot in your nature. It’s that which you won’t look at about yourself. This is the counterpart exactly of the Freudian unconscious, the repressed recollections as well at the repressed potentialities in you.” [Pathway to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Google Books, p. 123]

In the following pages, we will closely examine both the personal shadow with which we all must contend individually and the collective shadow to which the personal shadows of some seven billion people contribute. The influence of both on the human species is gargantuan, and the current global crisis which threatens to erase all life from planet Earth is a horrifying testimony to the destructiveness of the shadow unseen and unhealed. This book offers options for embracing an alchemical odyssey that could alleviate the carnage and potentially transform the shadow of anyone willing to embark on the journey. With each passing conflagration of war, each ecological atrocity, each ethnic cleansing, each rape, pillage, and plunder of species and the planet, it seems less likely that the collective shadow will be healed, but if that transformation is possible, the only way to begin taking responsibility for the collective shadow is to be willing to be accountable for the personal one. Doing so may not transform the world, dear reader, but it may very well transform your world.

In The Shadow In America: Reclaiming The Soul of a Nation, Jacquelyn Small notes that:

Until made conscious the shadow causes us to act in ways that create catastrophe or explosions of emotionalism. It stands there on the threshold of our unconscious mind, reflecting back to us our blind side. We must learn to embrace the shadow without trying to win it over. It is our teacher. We are often not able to hear the more kindly offerings of our friends, consequently, it must pop out from time to time to remind us from inside. When we try to deny the shadow, it multiplies. When instead, we choose to invite it in, we gain stability and expand consciousness, losing our self-righteousness, and becoming flexible, less defended, more balanced. [The Shadow In America: Reclaiming The Soul Of A Nation, Edited by Jeremiah Abrams, “Sacred Hunger,” by Jacquelyn Small, p. 165.]

In her 2005 book The Sacred Purpose of Being Human, Small refers to the shadow as “…our holy grit. It’s the sandpaper in your psyche that rubs you raw until you make it conscious.” [p. 78] Thus, the reader does not need the reminders of the shadow’s presence and power presented in this book to be goaded, annoyed, discouraged, or flummoxed by it. On its own, the shadow relentlessly reminds us of its ubiquitous agenda. However, beyond providing information, this book offers specific practices and exercises for implementing deep shadow healing.

In my two previous books, Love In The Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating The Relationships We Need to Thrive, and Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times, I repeatedly emphasized the urgency of living lives of compassionate service to the planet. To that end, a number of tools were offered in both books. It is now incontrovertibly clear to me that without engaging with the personal and collective shadows in a process of conscious healing, the noble and necessary intention of compassionate service will be thwarted or perhaps even sabotaged by the machinations of unaddressed shadow material.

But we commit to working with the shadow not only because failing to do so impedes our loftiest intentions but because we are “prospectors” in search of the “dark gold.” If there are precious metals to be mined, why would we settle for less? For as Robert Johnson reminds us in Owning Your Own Shadow, “…these disowned parts are extremely valuable and cannot be disregarded. As promised of the living water, our shadow costs nothing and is immediately---and embarrassingly---ever present. To honor and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.” [Robert Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding The Dark Side of The Psyche, Harper One, 1991, p.x]

In Meeting The Shadow: The Hidden Power of The Dark Side of Human Nature, Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams clarify six monumentally important reasons for transforming our relationship with the shadow which are fundamental reasons for writing this book. They note that, “A right relationship with the shadow offers us a great gift: to lead us back to our buried potentials.” Through shadow-work, the authors assert, we can:

Experience more genuine self-acceptance, based on a more complete knowledge of who we are

Defuse what we perceive as the negative emotions that erupt unexpectedly in our daily lives

Feel less guilt and shame with respect to our so-called “negative” feelings and actions

Recognize the projections that color our opinions of others and learn how to reclaim those projections

Heal our relationships through honest self-examination and direct communication

Access and use an untapped storehouse of creative energy through our dreams, artistic expression, and sacred ritual [Connie Zweig, Jeremiah Abrams, Meeting The Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, Jeremy Tarcher, 1991, xxv]

It must be noted, however, that when Zweig and Abrams edited their magnificent collection of articles by masters of Jungian psychology in the early 1990s, the global crisis had not reached its current magnitude of severity. At that point in human history, almost no one was discussing the possibility of near-term human extinction or the termination of life on Earth. While the anthology contains a number of articles addressing the collective shadow, that is, the shadow carried by the community at large, what was not yet glaringly obvious was the extent to which humans were annihilating the planet.

Thus one gift that may be added to Zweig and Abram’s list is the potential offered by doing shadow work for healing significant aspects of the Earth community. Since the collective shadow is comprised of the projections of individuals, even minimal reclamation of our own projections facilitates harmonious communication and interaction within the human community.

At the end of each chapter in this book, the reader will find specific suggested practices and exercises that support the reader in taking the material deeper and forging a more distinct path toward shadow healing. If one desires to mine the dark gold, these practices provide the working tools for launching and continuing the extraction of riches from the shadow. The suggested practices are also structured so that they might be employed not only by the individual reader but utilized with groups of “shadow prospectors” as well.

With each writing of every book I have penned, I become increasingly aware of all of the beings to whom I am indebted for making it possible to carry my voice and work forward. I am forever indebted to my friend and “soul brother, Andrew Harvey whose wind is always at my back. I deeply appreciate my associations with Guy McPherson, Pauline Schneider, and Jill Angelo as well as the tireless efforts of Peter Melton and Dean Walker in supporting my work.

I owe an eternal debt to Carl Jung, Meg Pierce, and all Jungian analysts and therapists worldwide who carry his work forward in a culture that cares little for his contribution to the healing of the human soul.

Much gratitude to Kermit Heartsong and the editorial team of Tayen Lane.

Thank you Janis, Judith, Daphne, and Kristen. Thank you Sammy for faithfully lying under my chair and inspiring me with the sounds of your dreams.

Thank you, reader, for picking up this book and daring to contemplate the journey of shadow healing.

Now, onward and inward.

Syria, Climate Change and the Horror in Paris

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

As the world mourns those who died in Paris last week in a killing spree for which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility, reporters and commentators have been discussing the motivations behind the attacks. I'm not sure that any so far has considered whether one can draw a straight line from a severe drought in Syria to these mass killings. My own answer is that if the line is there--and I think it is--then it has taken many twists and turns before arriving in Paris.

Even so, it might be worthwhile for those who will soon be gathering in this bereaved city in order to negotiate a new worldwide climate treaty to understand any such connection. For in the background behind these events, there is a Syria starved of water almost surely because of climate change.

A study released earlier this year suggested that the first link in the causal chain that led to the current conflict in Syria was a severe drought lasting from 2006 through 2009, a drought that yielded some of the strongest evidence yet for the link between climate change and increasingly extreme droughts.

As The New York Times reported last March:

Some social scientists, policy makers and others have previously suggested that the drought played a role in the Syrian unrest, and the researchers addressed this as well, saying the drought "had a catalytic effect." They cited studies that showed that the extreme dryness, combined with other factors, including misguided agricultural and water-use policies of the Syrian government, caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. This in turn added to social stresses that eventually resulted in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

So, climate change is not a sufficient explanation for the Syrian conflict nor for the ugly and brutal attacks on French civilians. In fact, ISIS had been threatening France long before the French military joined the conflict in late September. Nevertheless, climate change appears to be the first link in a long chain of events involving a myriad of groups and countries that ultimately led to the attacks in Paris, attacks believed to be in retaliation for French airstrikes on ISIS.

It is not that climate change causes people to be violent so much as it exacerbates their violent tendencies. Lack of water and the failure of harvests can make people very, very angry--angry and susceptible to those who promise revenge against the perceived perpetrators of their problems.

But, one cannot fight climate change with guns. So, when the guns come out, they get pointed at people for reasons few trace back to climate change. Simmering grievances, old and new, can find their expression, it seems, in armed conflict when the heat from global warming is turned up this high.

The paramount concern in Paris now is for the safety of those thousands of scientists, policymakers, businesspeople, reporters and world leaders who will be descending on the city for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change between November 30 and December 11. Will it enter the attendees' minds that the savage attacks in Paris are in some way linked to climate change? Will the broader public worldwide see the link?

We humans have a natural proclivity to fight over things we want and need such as water, food, and energy resources. Climate change will make our ability to obtain all of these in sufficient quantities either more difficult (food and water) or more problematic (greenhouse gases from fossil fuel energy resources).

More conflict over these basics that is linked to climate change cannot be far in the future. And, that means that the upcoming climate talks in Paris will not just be about climate. They will also be about conflict and peace. Without substantial progress on climate change we are likely to see ever more conflicts that begin with deprivation brought on by climate change, but which quickly spiral into wars with ideological, ethnic and religious dimensions that engulf entire regions.

Many readers may know the old adage about the relationship between peace and justice: "If you want peace, work for justice." To that we must now add a new variation: "If you want peace, you must work for policies and practices that seriously address climate change."

May the Paris negotiators find the courage to do just that.

An Uncomfortable Truth: A Tyranny of the Majority on Campuses

(Picture: University of Missouri students)

Originally posted on

Written by Antioch College Professor, Kevin McGruder

The abrupt resignation of Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, in the face of mounting criticisms from black students, and the ongoing demonstrations by black students at Yale University have placed the challenges faced by black students on predominantly white campuses in the public eye in a way not seen in decades.  The muted responses of administrators to racial incidents on these campuses has been as troubling as the incidents in which black students were targeted with racial epithets or ridiculed in other ways by fellow students. 

Yale University students

Yale University students

Students come and go on campuses, but administrators and faculty are stewards of campus culture. An important part of their charge, whether they realize it or not, is ensuring that a healthy learning environment exists. On residential campuses this is particularly important because where the students learn is also where they live. For the majority of the calendar year, the campus is home.  Given these clear responsibilities, what explanation could there be for the failure of the responsible parties to respond to the concerns of black students?  Some have suggested that honoring the offending students’ rights to free speech prevents intervention. Others have implied that intervening in such incidents would be coddling black students who should learn to make their way on campus and eventually in the world on their own. These arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. Imagine if the tables were turned and, on a predominantly white college campus, black students were hurling epithets at white students, or ridiculing white students in other ways. We can be sure that the full force of the institution would be marshaled to end this behavior, inspired by an instinctive desire to protect students who are in the majority.  A scenario precipitating such action is unlikely because students who are in the racial majority on a campus wield cultural power that is rooted in the assumption that they are true representatives of the student body. Most observers assume that these students are the stewards of campus culture and for their time on campus the majority students do dominate and define campus culture.  When students from the white racial majority on a campus target black students who are racial minorities on that campus, the white students are wielding their power, instinctively engaging in an unfair fight. Their actions illustrate a version of a tyranny of the majority. Expecting individual black students to respond to attacks from white students in a way that can overcome this power imbalance is delusional. Black students understand this, which is why at the University of Missouri, Yale and other campuses they have organized and created coalitions with other sympathetic student allies to amplify their voices. Unfortunately even these efforts have not led to resolutions of the underlying problems. The resignations of University of Missouri president and chancellor are only the beginning of a story that is still unfolding. Yale administrators have not made clear how they plan to respond to student grievances.  

Why such tepid campus responses to incidents that exemplify a tyranny of the majority? Many administrators and faculty do not seem to view the actions of white students from this perspective.  They seem to see each incident as an individual act of wrongdoing rather than acts born of the campus culture, which is derived from American culture.  In the several decades that most colleges have to varying degrees welcomed black students to their campuses, most campuses have done so with the message “join us, learn our ways, adapt and excel.”  Most black students are excited about going to college, expecting to learn and to change as a result of their experiences. But many colleges do not realize that in recruiting students who are not white to their campuses, if they expect these students to feel at home, the campuses also have to be prepared to change in ways that incorporate the perspectives of these non-white students. If they fail to take action many of these black students will endure unhealthy college experiences and some will leave. 

University of Missouri students

University of Missouri students

If colleges are sincerely committed to recruiting black students, and ensuring that they thrive during their college careers, some uncomfortable truths that are barriers to changing campus culture to accommodate non-white students, must be faced.  The enduring power of white supremacy has to be confronted, even though the phrase itself makes many people uncomfortable.  Using a more palatable term disguises the perniciousness of this enduring belief system.  The failure to confront the truth, that white supremacy is alive and well in U.S. culture, and on college campuses, is the only way we can move beyond being mystified by the continuing incidents of racially tinged attacks on campuses. White supremacy is the concept that white people are inherently superior in all ways to other people. The concept dates to the growth of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and was essential to justifying the purchase and sale of millions of people of African descent, from the 1500s through the 1800s, to labor on plantations in the Americas. While many may assume that white supremacy is a relic of the era of slavery, it is important to understand the ways that in the decades after emancipation, white supremacy adapted and endured. In the U.S. the end of slavery in 1865 was followed by decades of segregation laws and other practices limiting the opportunities of black people that are evidence of the desire to maintain the racial hierarchy of whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.  When the successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s made such practices illegal, white supremacist tactics became more informal and subtle, but they continue to this day.  People in the U.S., white and black, living in a culture influenced by these centuries of overt and covert white supremacy in action cannot avoid being influenced by these beliefs.

Many white Americans believe in the ideal of racial equality and are not promoters of white supremacy individually.  But white supremacy does not require individual actors to endure, it continues because it has been institutionalized in unseen ways, incorporated into bank lending practices, housing settlement patterns, our unequal education system, employment practices, and as has been made clear over the last year, in the criminal justice system.  White Americans, committed to racial equality, still benefit from white supremacy whether they want to or not, and black Americans, whether they realize it or not, are harmed by white supremacy. 

Most of the people enacting white supremacist practices aren’t bad people. While they probably could not explain it, the group of white University of Missouri students who yelled the N-word at their student body president Payton Head, a black man, were most likely motivated by an assumption that a black person should not be in that position. Their verbal attack was an attempt to diminish his achievement. Regardless of his status on campus, they wanted to make clear to him that they still viewed him as below them.  Most white supremacists sincerely believe they are doing what is right. In reality their actions reinforce their beliefs that white people should rightfully be at the top and in power in any given situation. This is the context in which colleges exist today, and this is the legacy that has influenced the interactions between white and black students who are trying to live and learn together on their campuses. 

College campuses, with departments of history, psychology, political science, sociology, and philosophy, would seem to be uniquely positioned to engage in discussions that get to the historical root of the contemporary problems facing their campuses.  There are undoubtedly students, administrators, and faculty already engaged in these discussions on these campuses. The fact that the decision makers on the campuses are stumbling in developing an analysis that could lead to a meaningful response suggests an unwillingness to hear and to face the uncomfortable truth behind the tyranny of the majority on their campuses. 

Kevin McGruder, Ph.D.,  is Assistant Professor of History at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio

Why the Paris Climate Summit Will Be a Peace Conference

Originally posted on

Written by Michael Klare

At the end of November, delegations from nearly 200 countries will convene in Paris for what is billed as the most important climate meeting ever held.  Officially known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the 1992 treatythat designated that phenomenon a threat to planetary health and human survival), the Paris summit will be focused on the adoption of measures that would limit global warming to less than catastrophic levels. If it fails, world temperatures in the coming decades are likely to exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), the maximum amount most scientists believe the Earth can endure without experiencing irreversible climate shocks, including soaring temperatures and a substantial rise in global sea levels.

A failure to cap carbon emissions guarantees another result as well, though one far less discussed.  It will, in the long run, bring on not just climate shocks, but also worldwide instability, insurrection, and warfare.  In this sense, COP-21 should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference -- perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.

To grasp why, consider the latest scientific findings on the likely impacts of global warming, especially the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  When first published, that report attracted worldwide media coverage for predicting that unchecked climate change will result in severe droughts, intense storms, oppressive heat waves, recurring crop failures, and coastal flooding, all leading to widespread death and deprivation.  Recent events, including a punishing drought in California and crippling heat waves in Europe and Asia, have focused more attention on just such impacts.  The IPCC report, however, suggested that global warming would have devastating impacts of a social and political nature as well, including economic decline, state collapse, civil strife, mass migrations, and sooner or later resource wars.

These predictions have received far less attention, and yet the possibility of such a future should be obvious enough since human institutions, like natural systems, are vulnerable to climate change.  Economies are going to suffer when key commodities -- crops, timber, fish, livestock -- grow scarcer, are destroyed, or fail.  Societies will begin to buckle under the strain of economic decline and massive refugee flows. Armed conflict may not be the most immediate consequence of these developments, the IPCC notes, but combine the effects of climate change with already existing poverty, hunger, resource scarcity, incompetent and corrupt governance, and ethnic, religious, or national resentments, and you’re likely to end up with bitter conflicts over access to food, water, land, and other necessities of life.

The Coming of Climate Civil Wars

Such wars would not arise in a vacuum.  Already existing stresses and grievances would be heightened, enflamed undoubtedly by provocative acts and the exhortations of demagogic leaders.  Think of the current outbreak of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, touched off by clashes over access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (also known as the Noble Sanctuary) and the inflammatory rhetoric of assorted leaders. Combine economic and resource deprivation with such situations and you have a perfect recipe for war.

The necessities of life are already unevenly distributed across the planet. Often the divide between those with access to adequate supplies of vital resources and those lacking them coincides with long-term schisms along racial, ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines.  The Israelis and Palestinians, for example, harbor deep-seated ethnic and religious hostilities but also experience vastly different possibilities when it comes to access to land and water.  Add the stresses of climate change to such situations and you can naturally expect passions to boil over.

Climate change will degrade or destroy many natural systems, often already under stress, on which humans rely for their survival.  Some areas that now support agriculture or animal husbandry may become uninhabitable or capable only of providing for greatly diminished populations.  Under the pressure of rising temperatures and increasingly fierce droughts, the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, for example, is now being transformed from grasslands capable of sustaining nomadic herders into an empty wasteland, forcing local nomads off their ancestral lands. Many existing farmlands in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East will suffer a similar fate.  Rivers that once supplied water year-round will run only sporadically or dry up altogether, again leaving populations with unpalatable choices.

As the IPCC report points out, enormous pressure will be put upon often weak state institutions to adjust to climate change and aid those in desperate need of emergency food, shelter, and other necessities. “Increased human insecurity,” the report says, “may coincide with a decline in the capacity of states to conduct effective adaptation efforts, thus creating the circumstances in which there is greater potential for violent conflict.”

A good example of this peril is provided by the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the subsequent collapse of that country in a welter of fighting and a wave of refugees of a sort that hasn’t been seen since World War II.  Between 2006 and 2010, Syria experienced a devastating drought in which climate change is believed to have been a factor, turning nearly 60% of the country into desert.  Crops failed and most of the country’s livestock perished, forcing millions of farmers into penury.  Desperate and unable to live on their land any longer, they moved into Syria’s major cities in search of work, often facing extreme hardship as well as hostility from well-connected urban elites.

Had Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad responded with an emergency program of jobs and housing for those displaced, perhaps conflict could have been averted.  Instead, he cut food and fuel subsidies, adding to the misery of the migrants and fanning the flames of revolt.  In the view of several prominent scholars, “the rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest.”

A similar picture has unfolded in the Sahel region of Africa, the southern fringe of the Sahara, where severe drought has combined with habitat decline and government neglect to provoke armed violence.  The area has faced many such periods in the past, but now, thanks to climate change, there is less time between the droughts.  “Instead of 10 years apart, they became five years apart, and now only a couple years apart,” observes Robert Piper, the United Nations regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel.  “And that, in turn, is putting enormous stresses on what is already an incredibly fragile environment and a highly vulnerable population.”

In Mali, one of several nations straddling this region, the nomadic Tuaregshave been particularly hard hit, as the grasslands they rely on to feed their cattle are turning into desert.  A Berber-speaking Muslim population, the Tuaregs have long faced hostility from the central government in Bamako, once controlled by the French and now by black Africans of Christian or animist faith.  With their traditional livelihoods in peril and little assistance forthcoming from the capital, the Tuaregs revolted in January 2012, capturing half of Mali before being driven back into the Sahara by French and other foreign forces (with U.S. logistical and intelligence support).

Consider the events in Syria and Mali previews of what is likely to come later in this century on a far larger scale.  As climate change intensifies, bringing not just desertification but rising sea levels in low-lying coastal areas and increasingly devastating heat waves in regions that are already hot, ever more parts of the planet will be rendered less habitable, pushing millions of people into desperate flight.

While the strongest and wealthiest governments, especially in more temperate regions, will be better able to cope with these stresses, expect to see the number of failed states grow dramatically, leading to violence and open warfare over what food, arable land, and shelter remains.  In other words, imagine significant parts of the planet in the kind of state that Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in today.  Some people will stay and fight to survive; others will migrate, almost assuredly encountering a far more violent version of the hostility we already see toward immigrants and refugees in the lands they head for.  The result, inevitably, will be a global epidemic of resource civil wars and resource violence of every sort.

Water Wars

Most of these conflicts will be of an internal, civil character: clan against clan, tribe against tribe, sect against sect.  On a climate-changed planet, however, don’t rule out struggles among nations for diminished vital resources -- especially access to water.  It’s already clear that climate change will reduce the supply of water in many tropical and subtropical regions, jeopardizing the continued pursuit of agriculture, the health and functioning of major cities, and possibly the very sinews of society.

The risk of “water wars” will arise when two or more countries depend on the same key water source -- the Nile, the Jordan, the Euphrates, the Indus, the Mekong, or other trans-boundary river systems -- and one or more of them seek to appropriate a disproportionate share of the ever-shrinking supply of its water.  Attempts by countries to build dams and divert the water flow of such riverine systems have already provoked skirmishes and threats of war, as when Turkey and Syria erected dams on the Euphrates, constraining the downstream flow.

One system that has attracted particular concern in this regard is the Brahmaputra River, which originates in China (where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo) and passes through India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Indian Ocean.  China has already erected one dam on the river and has plans for more, producing considerable unease in India, where the Brahmaputra’s water is vital for agriculture.  But what has provoked the most alarm is a Chinese plan to channel water from that river to water-scarce areas in the northern part of that country. 

The Chinese insist that no such action is imminent, but intensified warming and increased drought could, in the future, prompt such a move, jeopardizing India’s water supply and possibly provoking a conflict.  “China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream,” Sudha Ramachandran writes in The Diplomat, “it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.”

Of course, even in a future of far greater water stresses, such situations are not guaranteed to provoke armed combat.  Perhaps the states involved will figure out how to share whatever limited resources remain and seek alternative means of survival.  Nonetheless, the temptation to employ force is bound to grow as supplies dwindle and millions of people face thirst and starvation.  In such circumstances, the survival of the state itself will be at risk, inviting desperate measures.

Lowering the Temperature

There is much that undoubtedly could be done to reduce the risk of water wars, including the adoption of cooperative water-management schemes and the introduction of the wholesale use of drip irrigation and related processes that use water far more efficiently. However, the best way to avoid future climate-related strife is, of course, to reduce the pace of global warming.  Every fraction of a degree less warming achieved in Paris and thereafter will mean that much less blood spilled in future climate-driven resource wars.

This is why the Paris climate summit should be viewed as a kind of preemptive peace conference, one that is taking place before the wars truly begin.  If delegates to COP-21 succeed in sending us down a path that limits global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the risk of future violence will be diminished accordingly.  Needless to say, even 2 degrees of warming guarantees substantial damage to vital natural systems, potentially severe resource scarcities, and attendant civil strife.  As a result, a lower ceiling for temperature rise would be preferable and should be the goal of future conferences.  Still, given the carbon emissions pouring into the atmosphere, even a 2-degree cap would be a significant accomplishment.

To achieve such an outcome, delegates will undoubtedly have to begin dealing with conflicts of the present moment as well, including those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine, in order to collaborate in devising common, mutually binding climate measures.  In this sense, too, the Paris summit will be a peace conference.  For the first time, the nations of the world will have to step beyond national thinking and embrace a higher goal: the safety of the ecosphere and all its human inhabitants, no matter their national, ethnic, religious, racial, or linguistic identities.  Nothing like this has ever been attempted, which means that it will be an exercise in peacemaking of the most essential sort -- and, for once, before the wars truly begin.

Globalization and Terror

Originally posted on

Written by Helena Norberg-Hodge

For people in the modern world, there may be nothing more difficult to comprehend than the group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS. The beheadings, rapes, and other acts of cruelty seem beyond understanding, as does the wanton destruction of priceless ancient monuments. Perhaps most mystifying of all is the way ISIS has been able to recruit young men — and even some young women — from the industralized West, particularly Europe: the conventional wisdom is that the cure for ethnic and religious violence is “development,” education, and the opportunities provided by free markets. This seems not to be the case.

Because of the mainstream media’s narrow and often misplaced focus, it’s not surprising that most Westerners believe that religious extremism is primarily a problem of Islam. But the fighting in Syria and Iraq is not the only ethnic or religious conflict underway. There has been violence between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus in Bhutan, Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab, Eritreans and Ethiopians in the Horn of Africa, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the former Soviet Union, and many more. The fact is, fanaticism, fundamentalism, and ethnic conflict have been growing for many decades—and not just in the Islamic world.

Failure to recognize this trend can lead to the belief that terrorism is a product of nothing more than religious extremism and will end when secular market-based democracies are established throughout the world. Unfortunately the reality is far more complex, and unless we address the underlying causes of conflict and terrorism, a more peaceful and secure future will remain elusive.

To really understand the rise of religious fundamentalism and ethnic conflict we need to look at the deep impacts of the global consumer culture on living cultures throughout the planet. Doing so allows us not only to better understand ISIS and similar groups, but also to see a way forward that lessens violence on all sides.

My perspective comes from nearly fifty years of experience in numerous cultures in both the Global North and the Global South. I studied in Austria in 1966, when the Tyrol conflict was raging; I was a resident in Spain in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Basque separatist group ETA was active; I lived in England when pitched battles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland spilled over into bombings on the streets of London; and I’ve worked for almost four decades on the Indian subcontinent, where I’ve seen terrorist acts in Nepal, as well as ethnic tensions and open conflict in India and Bhutan.

Most important of all, since 1975 I have witnessed the emergence of tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Ladakh, a region of India in the western Himalayas that has close cultural and historical ties to Tibet. More than 40 years ago I founded the Ladakh Project — which has since grown into Local Futures — to support local efforts to maintain Ladakh’s cultural integrity in the face of economic globalization, and I have witnessed sobering changes in the area during these decades.

For more than 600 years Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side in Ladakh with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped one another at harvest time, attended one another’s religious festivals, and sometimes intermarried. But over a period of about 15 years, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims escalated rapidly, and by 1989 they were bombing of each other’s homes. One mild-mannered Buddhist grandmother, who a decade earlier had been drinking tea and laughing with her Muslim neighbor, told me, “We have to kill all the Muslims or they will finish us off.”

How did relations between these two ethnic groups change so quickly and completely? The transformation is just as unfathomable as the emergence of ISIS, unless one understands the complex interrelated effects of globalization on individuals and communities worldwide.

Throughout the world, globalized “development” generally entails an influx of external investments that are then used to build up an energy and transport infrastructure. This new infrastructure then shifts the locus of economic and political life from a multitude of villages and towns to a handful of large urban centers. This is what happened in Ladakh. Suddenly, villages that had previously provided food, energy, medicine, and skills born of generations of local knowledge were struggling to survive. They were no longer able to compete with the city, where subsidized imported food, petroleum, pharmaceuticals, and designer clothes were available for the lucky few. The destruction of the local economy and culture by the global economy also created what can best be described as a cultural inferiority complex.

When I first arrived in Ladakh forty years ago, there was no indication that people thought of themselves as poor or inferior. Instead they regularly described themselves as having enough and being content with their lives. Though natural resources were scarce and the climate difficult, the Ladakhis had, in fact, a remarkably high standard of living. Most of the region’s farmers only really worked four months of the year, and poverty and unemployment were alien concepts.

In one of my first years in Ladakh, I was shown around a remote village by a young Ladakhi named Tsewang. Since all the houses I saw seemed especially large and beautiful, I asked him to show me the houses where the poor lived. He looked perplexed for a moment, then replied, “We don’t have any poor people here.”

In part, the Ladakhis’ confidence and sense of having enough emanated from a deep sense of community: people knew they could depend on one another. But in 1975—the year Tsewang showed me his village—the Indian government decided to open up the region to the process of development, and life began to change rapidly. Within a few years the Ladakhis were exposed to television, Western movies, advertising, and a seasonal flood of foreign tourists. Subsidized food and consumer goods—from Michael Jackson CDs and plastic toys to Rambo videos and pornography—poured in on the new roads that development brought. Ladakh’s local economy was being swallowed up by the global economy, and its traditional culture displaced by the consumer monoculture.

A new form of competition began to separate Ladakhis from one another. As the artificially “cheap,” subsidized goods from outside destroyed the local economy, Ladakhis were forced to fight for the scarce jobs of the new money economy.

Competition also increased for political power. In the past, most Ladakhis wielded real influence and power within their own economy. But in the late 1970s, when the Ladakhis were absorbed into India’s national economy of 800 million and a global economy of 6 billion, their influence and power were reduced almost to zero. The little political power that remained was funneled through highly centralized institutions and bureaucracies, dominated by the Muslims in Kashmir.

Competitive pressures increased further as development replaced plentiful local materials with the scarce materials of the global monoculture: thus stone gave way to concrete and steel; wool to imported cotton and polyester; and local wheat and milk to imported wheat and milk. The result was artificial scarcity: people who had managed well for centuries on local materials were now, in effect, in fierce competition with everyone else on the planet.

In Ladakh and elsewhere in the Global South, these economic pressures are reinforced by the media and advertising, whose images consistently portray the rich and the beautiful living an exciting and glamorous version of the American Dream. Satellite television now brings shows like Sex and the City to the most remote parts of the world, making village life seem primitive, backward, and boring by contrast. Young people in particular are made to feel ashamed of their own culture. The psychological impact on Ladakh was sudden and stark: eight years after Tsewang told me that his village had no poor people, I overheard him saying to some tourists, “If you could only help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor.”

The undermining of cultural self-worth is an implicit goal of many marketers, who promote their own brands by imparting a sense of shame about local products. An American advertising executive in Beijing admitted that the message being drummed into Third World populations today is “Imported equals good, local equals crap.”

But it is not just local products that are denigrated by advertising and media images: it is local people as well. In Ladakh and around the world, the one-dimensional media stereotypes are almost invariably based on an urban, blonde, blue-eyed Western consumer model. If you are a farmer or are dark-skinned, you are supposed to feel backward and inferior. Thus, advertisements in Thailand and South America urge people to “correct” their dark eye color with blue contact lenses: “Have the color of eyes you wish you were born with!” For the same reason, many dark-skinned women throughout the world use dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin and hair, and some Asian women have operations to make their eyes look more Western. These are profound acts of capitulation to a global social and economic order that offers material and social rewards to those who come closest to the West’s commodified standards of beauty.

Few in the Global South have been able to withstand this assault on their cultural and individual self-esteem. A few years ago I visited the most remote part of Kenya’s Masailand: I had been told that this was a region that had withstood the pressures of the consumer monoculture, where people still retained an untarnished dignity and pride. So I was horrified when a young Masai leader introduced me to his father saying, “Helena is working in the Himalayas with people who are even more primitive than we are.” The old man replied, “That is not possible: no one could be more primitive than us.”

The Rise of Fundamentalism in Ladakh

In the past, Ladakhis would rarely identify themselves as Buddhists or Muslims, instead referring to their household or village of origin. But with the heightened competition brought by development, that began to change. Political power, formerly dispersed throughout the villages, became concentrated in bureaucracies controlled by the Muslim-dominated state of Kashmir, of which Ladakh was part. In most countries the group in power tends to favor its own kind, while the rest often suffer discrimination. Ladakh was no exception. Political representation and government jobs—virtually the only jobs available to formally-schooled Ladakhis—disproportionately went to Muslims. Thus ethnic and religious differences—once largely ignored—began to take on a political dimension, causing bitterness and enmity on a scale previously unknown.

Young Ladakhis, for whom religion had been just another part of daily life, took exaggerated steps to demonstrate their religious affiliation and devotion. Muslims began requiring their wives and daughters to cover their heads with scarves. Buddhists in the capital began broadcasting their prayers over loudspeakers, so as to compete with the Muslim prayer call. Religious ceremonies that were once celebrated by the whole community—Buddhist and Muslim alike—became instead occasions to flaunt one’s wealth and strength. In 1987 tensions between the two groups exploded into violence. This in a place where there had been no group conflict in living memory.

Over the next few years I met a number of young Ladakhis who said they were ready to kill people in the name of Islam or Buddhism. These were young men who hadn’t had much exposure to the traditional teachings of their respective religions. Instead, they tended to be those who had studiously modeled themselves on Rambo and James Bond, and who were the most psychologically insecure. On the other hand, those who managed to maintain their deeper connections to the community and to their spiritual roots in general seemed psychologically strong enough to remain gentle and tolerant.

It may be surprising to some people to know that the Ladakhis most prone to violence were generally those with exposure to Western-style schooling. This feature of development—usually seen as an unequivocal good—pulled the young away from the skills and values most suited to life on the Tibetan Plateau, substituting instead an education suited to a consumer lifestyle that will lie forever beyond the reach of the majority. Battered by the impossible dreams foisted on them by their schools, the media, and advertisements, many youth ended up unwanted, frustrated, and angry.

Ladakh’s story is not unusual. The rise of divisions, violence, and civil disorder around the world are a predictable effect of the attempt to force diverse cultures and peoples into a consumer monoculture. The problem is particularly acute in the Global South, where people from many differing ethnic backgrounds are pulled into cities where they are cut off from their communities and cultural moorings and face ruthless competition for jobs and the basic necessities of life. In the intensely demoralizing and competitive situation they face, differences of any kind become increasingly significant, and tension between differing ethnic or religious groups can easily flare into violence.

Since rural communities and local economies in the Global North are being ripped apart by many of the same destructive forces at work in the Global South, it should be no surprise that the effects are similar here too. Christian fundamentalism, for example, has taken root in America’s rural heartland, as has increased hostility toward immigrants, Muslims, and other ethnic minorities. Across Europe, there has been hostility to immigrants and their children—not just the recent influx from Syria, but also those who have been in Europe for decades. Many of these immigrants live on the tattered edges of glamorous cities whose affluence is like a cruel taunt. Moreover, neo-Nazi movements have gained strength in places like Greece, where the Golden Dawn party blames the country’s economic woes on “illegal immigrants”—rather than on the “structural adjustments” that were the price for recent bailouts.

At the same time, we can see—even in our own culture—that robbing men of self-respect and the ability to provide for themselves and their family is a recipe for violence. That violence is usually directed at “the other” — whether it’s refugees, different religious or racial groups, or even women and children from their own community.

Despite the clear connection between the spread of the global monoculture and ethnic conflict, many in the West place responsibility at the feet of tradition rather than modernity, blaming “ancient hatreds” that have smoldered beneath the surface for centuries. Certainly ethnic friction is a phenomenon that predates colonialism and modernization. But after four decades of documenting and analyzing the effects of globalization on the Indian subcontinent, I am convinced that becoming connected to the global consumer economy doesn’t just exacerbate existing tensions—in many cases it actually creates them. The arrival of the global economy breaks down human-scale structures, destroys bonds of reciprocity and mutual dependence, and pressures the young to substitute their own culture and values with the artificial values of advertising and the media. In effect this means rejecting one’s own identity and rejecting one’s self. In the case of Ladakh, it is clear that “ancient hatreds” didn’t previously exist and cannot account for the sudden appearance of violence.

Lessening the Violence

The best long-term strategy to stop the spread of ethnic and religious violence is to reverse the policies that now promote growth-at-any-cost development. Today, free trade treaties—one of the prime engines of globalization—are pressuring governments to invest in ever larger-scale infrastructures and to subsidize giant, mobile corporations to the detriment of millions of smaller local and national enterprises.

The creation of a global monoculture in the image of the West has proven disastrous on many counts, none more important than the violence it does to cultures that must be pulled apart to accommodate the process. When that violence spins out of control, it should remind us of the heavy cost of leveling the world’s diverse multitude of social and economic systems, many of which are better at sustainably meeting people’s needs than is the system that aims to replace them.

Until about 500 years ago, local cultures throughout the world were the products of a dialogue between humans and a particular place, growing and evolving from the bottom up in response to local conditions. Cultures have absorbed and responded to outside influences such as trade, but the process of conquest, colonialism, and development that has affected so much of the world is fundamentally different: it has forcefully imposed change from the outside. And since the end of World War II, the forces dismantling local economies have grown far more powerful. Today, speculative investment and transnational corporations are transforming every aspect of life—people’s language, their music, their buildings, their agriculture, and the way they see the world. That top-down form of cultural change works against diversity, against the very fabric of life.

In any case, the Western model that is being pushed on the world is not replicable: the one-eyed economists who look at electronic signals to tell them whether economies are healthy or “growing fast enough” don’t do the arithmetic needed to see if the earth has enough resources for their abstract models to work. It is little more than a cruel hoax to promise the poor of the world that development and free trade will enable them to live like Americans or Europeans, who consume ten times their fair share of resources. For all but a small minority, the American Dream is a physical impossibility. No wonder then that increased poverty and breakdown lead to rising resentment of Westerners—particularly Americans, who are seen as the main proponents and beneficiaries of the global economy. This despite the fact that the American Dream is now beyond the reach of most Americans, as well.

It is vital that we in the West shift to a decentralized, less resource-intensive economic model immediately. But equally urgent is a shift in development policies for the less industrialized, less oil-dependent South, where a strategy based on decentralized, renewable energy would be far easier and less expensive to implement than continuing to pursue a centralized, carbon-intensive energy path. By improving conditions in villages, towns and small cities, this strategy would also help stem the unhealthy tide of urbanization—the depopulation of rural areas that is structurally linked to corporate-led globalization. We also need to look critically even at those well-meaning proposals, like the UN’s recent Sustainable Development Goals, that call for further “aid” to the Global South to alleviate poverty (a presumed cause of terrorism). The elimination of poverty is certainly a worthy goal, but most aid is export-oriented and actually increases real poverty while tying people more tightly to a global economy over which they have no control. It undermines the ability of communities and whole nations to produce for their own needs, maintain their own culture, and determine their own future. It cannot prevent either poverty or terrorism. Like further trade deregulation, most development aid primarily enables global corporations to exploit labor, resources, and markets worldwide.

What is needed is a shift away from globalization towards economic localization, along with what I call “counter-development”—efforts that increase self-reliance while providing information to balance the romanticized images of the consumer culture disseminated by western style schooling and the media.

For forty years, Local Futures has been running a range of initiatives with those goals in mind. Our efforts have included a program to demonstrate renewable energy technologies—primarily small-scale solar and hydro—that improve living standards without tying people into the fossil fuel economy. Importantly, our work has also sought to deglamorize the consumer culture. We have painted a fuller picture of modern urban life, sharing information about the serious problems of crime, unemployment, loneliness, and alienation in the West. At the same time we have highlighted the various movements that seek to strengthen local economies and community, regenerate healthier agriculture, and foster a deeper connection to the living world.

Paradoxically, these efforts have involved a closer connection between Westerners and people from the Global South—we have even sponsored some to come on reality tours to the West. In Ladakh we have run programs that enable Westerners to experience traditional village life. The interest and involvement of these Westerners in Ladakh’s culture and in farming has helped to counter the derogatory messages transmitted by Western media.

Working closely with indigenous leaders, our efforts have essentially been about countering and providing alternatives to global development models based on debt and fossil fuels. For this approach to be replicated, we urgently need major educational campaigns as well as closer dialogue between grassroots organizations in the North and the South. We need a movement that will lobby governments and the UN, making it clear that the most effective way for governments to contribute to a reduction in both poverty and violence is not to scale up funding for development, but to scale back the forces of globalization. Those forces are underwritten by governments through free trade treaties, investments in trade-based infrastructures, a wide range of subsidies and tax breaks for global corporations, and much more. Withdrawing that support is a necessary step toward reversing the wave of resentment and anger spreading through much of the Global South.

Tragically, the primary “solutions” to the problem of terrorism have involved smart bombs, drone attacks, and wall-to-wall surveillance programs. At the same time, governments continue to undermine cultural identity through policies promoting a worldwide monoculture for the benefit of global corporations and banks. Such policies will only breed further desperation and fanaticism among people who already feel betrayed and disenfranchised. Encouraging instead a deeper dialogue between people in the Global North and the Global South, while shifting our economic policies to support local and national economies, would set us on the path toward a more harmonious world.

Exxon: We knew climate change was a real threat (but we didn't want you to)

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

One of the big complaints about climate change deniers is that they don't fund any genuine primary scientific research into climate change.

We are used to deniers extracting out-of-context passages from existing legitimate climate research and pretending those passages support the denialist position. But wait...we now know, thanks to recent coverage by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, that at least one climate change denier did fund a great deal of legitimate climate research.

And, what did that research show? It showed that climate change is real, is caused in great measure by human activities and has the potential to disrupt human society significantly. To be fair, when Exxon Corp. (now Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company) engaged in this research in the 1970s and 1980s, it was genuinely trying to understand the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. During that time Exxon scientists collaborated openly with prominent academic and government researchers and were even praised for their commitment and professionalism.

But, as we all know, that openness did not last. As the scientific findings became more alarming, the company began to see the findings from climate research as a threat to its business. Exxon launched a public relations offensive to dispute what climate researchers around the world were discovering, an offensive that lasted until 2008 when the company announced that it would end its support for the vast network of climate change denial organizations it had helped to build. (Whether the company did, in fact, end that support is disputed.)

You can read all the gory and disturbing details concerning this turnabout at the sites linked above. Some might consider this old news. Those who keep up on climate news are certainly familiar with the large denialist apparatus of front groups, fake think tanks and public relations firms supported by Exxon and others.

What's new is the revelation about how deeply committed Exxon was to actual legitimate scientific investigation and how much it did to further our understanding of climate change--including creating some of the most sophisticated climate modeling of the time. Those models are similar to models used by climate scientists today. But the company now derides such models as "useless."

Given all this, it is hard to overstate how brazen and cynical Exxon's leaders became. In the early 1990s, even while Exxon spokespersons and Exxon-funded front groups were decrying the inadequacy of climate models and downplaying the threat of climate change, the company was sponsoring a team of scientists to evaluate how a warming planet might affect exploration opportunities in the arctic as the sea ice melted. The prognosis looked good over the long term for turning arctic prospects--then inaccessible and risky--into profitable operations once the ice began to melt (as it has now started to do). The company was also interested in how melting permafrost would affect its pipelines and processing facilities which might be in danger of sinking into a landscape softened by warming.

But here's the real kicker: The team used climate models developed by Environment Canada, the Canadian government's environmental agency, to create its positive assessments about the eventual accessibility of underwater arctic oil and natural gas deposits. So, while the company was disparaging climate models, it was simultaneously salivating over the oil and gas profits that those very models predicted a warming arctic would make possible from the company's arctic leases. And, of course, the main ingredient for the warming represented in those models was the very carbon dioxide produced when Exxon's oil and natural gas was burned by its millions of customers.

Exxon has long used models to predict what it will find underground wherever it is thinking about drilling. It uses them to manage its existing oil and natural gas reservoirs. It uses models to calculate its reserves and implores its investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to believe the numbers its models spit out. For this reason, it is completely obvious that Exxon has no genuine objection to models of the physical world--except when those models might undermine the company's profitability.

Based on the latest revelations, climate action group is calling for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Just what crime Exxon perpetrated is not specified. But, it's understandable that what the company did feels like a crime.

The closest analogy is the cover-up by tobacco companies of research they did into the harmful health effects of smoking, but which they lied about to the public for many years. Those companies ended up getting sued by individuals, states and the federal government for health costs associated with smoking. But the tobacco companies are still in business and doing quite well.

I think those supporting an investigation of Exxon are hoping for criminal charges. There is a feeling that the company perpetrated a fraud on the public, that it lied about the dangers of its products while insisting on their safety. Fraud is indeed a crime. However, people mostly end up getting sued for it. Only a few actually go to jail.

It seems doubtful that such a prosecution could ever succeed. Exxon makes legal products that work as advertised. And so far, it's not illegal to do things which change the world's climate. It's true that the company has been trying to confuse policymakers and the public about the nature of the scientific research on climate change. But the First Amendment protects even people and companies who lie about matters of public policy--so long as companies don't lie about their products to the people who buy them.

Exxon never explicitly promised that burning oil and natural gas would not affect the world's climate. The company merely adopted the legally safe position of saying that the uncertainties surrounding climate change research were great. And, of course, it funded front groups to make it seem as if this message of uncertainty was coming from many places, not just one. But, none of this appears illegal, even if it is unseemly.

If I worked in the higher echelons of Exxon Mobil today or at any time in the last couple of decades, I'd be much more worried about being brought before some future international court to answer for what are called "crimes against humanity." In such a court, the protections afforded by U.S. law would be irrelevant. And, with the damage inflicted by climate change, say, by 2030, the public appetite for someone to blame might well be insatiable.

The Patience of the Sea

Originally posted on

Written by John Michael Greer

I've commented here more than once that these essays draw their inspiration from quite a variety of sources. This week’s post is no exception to that rule. What kickstarted the train of thought that brought it into being was a walk along the seashore last weekend at Ocean City, Maryland, watching the waves roll in and thinking about the imminent death of a good friend. 

East coast ocean resorts aren’t exactly a common destination for vacations in October, but then I wasn’t there for a vacation. I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason; it so happens that three organizations that supervise certain of the higher degrees of Masonry in Maryland took advantage of cheap off-season hotel rates to hold their annual meetings in Ocean City last weekend. Those readers who like to think of Masonry as a vast conspiracy of devil-worshipping space lizards, or whatever the Masonophobic paranoia du jour happens to be these days, would have been heartily disappointed by the weekend’s proceedings: a few dozen guys in off-the-rack business suits or cheap tuxedos, most of them small businessmen, skilled tradesmen, or retirees, donning the ornate regalia of an earlier time and discussing such exotic and conspiratorial topics as liability insurance for local lodges. 

That said, a very modest sort of history was made at this year’s session of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Maryland—as the name suggests, that’s the outfit that supervises the local bodies that confer the degrees of Royal Master and Select Master on qualified Master Masons in this state. More precisely, it’s one of two such bodies in Maryland. Back in the eighteenth century, Masonry in the United States split into two segregated branches, one for white and Native American Masons, the other for African-American Masons. Late in the twentieth century, as most other segregated institutions in American life dropped the color bar, the two branches of Masonry began a rapprochement as well. 

Merger was never an option, and not for the reason you’re thinking.  Both branches of Masonry in the US are proud organizations with their own traditions and customs, not to mention a deeply ingrained habit of prickly independence, and neither was interested in surrendering its own heritage, identity, and autonomy in a merger. Thus what happened was simply that both sides opened their doors to men of any skin color or ethnic background, formally recognized each other’s validity, and worked out the details involved in welcoming each other’s initiates as visiting brethren. Masonry being what it is, all this proceeded at a glacial pace, and since each state Grand Lodge makes its own rules, the glaciers moved at different speeds in different parts of the country. 

A couple of years ago, the first time I was qualified to attend the state sessions of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, I voted on the final stage in the movement of one particular glacierette, the establishment of full recognition and visitation between the two Maryland Grand Councils. My vote didn’t greatly matter, all things considered—the resolution was approved unanimously—but I was still happy to be able to cast it. I was equally happy, at this year’s grand sessions, to see the Most Illustrious Grand Master of the historically African-American Grand Council welcomed to the other Grand Council’s meeting with the traditional honors, invited to the East to address the brethren, and given a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Of such small steps is history composed. 

When somebody gets around to writing the definitive account of how the two branches of US Masonry healed the old division, this weekend’s session will merit something between a footnote and a sentence if it gets mentioned at all. I seriously doubt the historian will even notice that one of the attendees came a day early, stayed a day late, enjoyed the quiet pleasures that an uncluttered seashore and a half-empty resort town have to offer, and figured out a detail or two about the trajectory of industrial civilization while walking along the beach on a cloudy afternoon, as a stiff breeze blew spray off the long gray rollers coming in from the North Atlantic. 

All in all, it was a propitious place for such reflections. America just now, after all, has more than a little in common with an October day in Ocean City. Look around at the gaudy attractions that used to attract so much attention from adoring crowds, and you’ll see many of the same things I saw along the boardwalk that day. The space program? It’s boarded up for the duration like any other amusement park in the off season, though the plywood’s plastered with equally garish posters announcing coming attractions off somewhere in the indefinite future. The American Dream? The lights are shining on the upper floors and big flashing neon signs say “OPEN FOR BUSINESS,” but all the ground floor entrances are padlocked shut and nobody can get in. 

The consumer products that fill the same pacifying function in American society as cheap trinkets for the kids at a seaside resort are still for sale here and there, though many of the shops are already closed and shuttered.  The shelves of those that are still open are looking decidedly bare, and what’s left has that oddly mournful quality that shoddy plastic gewgaws always get when they’ve been left on display too long. The one difference that stands out is that Ocean City in late October is mostly deserted, while the crowds are still here in today’s America, milling around aimlessly in front of locked doors and lightless windows, while the sky darkens with oncoming weather and the sea murmurs and waits. 

But that wasn’t the thing that sparked this week’s reflections. The thing that sparked this week’s reflections was a stray question that came to mind when I abandoned the boardwalk to the handful of visitors who were strolling along it, and crossed the sand to the edge of the surf, thinking as I walked about the friend I mentioned earlier, who was lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the continent while his body slowly and implacably shut down. The boardwalk, the tourist attractions, and the hulking Babylonian glass-and-concrete masses of big hotels and condominiums stood on one side of me, while on the other, the cold gray sea surged and splashed and the terns danced past on the wind. The question in my mind was this: in a thousand years, which of these things will still be around? 

That’s a surprisingly edgy question these days, and to make sense of that, I’d like to jump to the seemingly unrelated subject of an article that appeared a little while ago in the glossy environmental magazine Orion.

The article was titled “Peak Oil Fantasy,” and it was written by Charles Mann, who made a modest splash a little while back with a couple of mildly controversial popular histories of the New World before and after Europeans got there. Those of my readers who have been keeping track of the mainstream media’s ongoing denunciations of peak oil will find it wearily familiar. It brandished the usual set of carefully cherrypicked predictions about the future of petroleum production that didn’t happen to pan out, claimed on that basis that peak oil can’t happen at all because it hasn’t happened yet, leapt from there to the insistence that our very finite planet must somehow contain a limitless amount of petroleum, and wound up blustering that everybody ought to get with the program, “cast away the narrative of scarcity,” and just shut up about peak oil. 

Mann’s article was a little more disingenuous than the run of the mill anti-peak-oil rant—it takes a certain amount of nerve to talk at length about M. King Hubbert, for example, without once mentioning the fact that he successfully predicted the peaking of US petroleum production in 1970, using the same equations that successfully predicted the peaking of world conventional petroleum production in 2005 and are being used to track the rise and fall of shale oil and other unconventional oil sources right now. Other than that, there’s nothing novel about “Peak Oil Fantasy,” as all but identical articles using the same talking points and rhetoric have appeared regularly for years now in The Wall Street Journal and other pro-industry, pave-the-planet publications. The only oddity is that a screed of this overfamiliar kind found its way into a magazine that claims to be all about environmental protection. 

Even that isn’t as novel as I would wish. Ever since The Archdruid Report began publication, just short of a decade ago, I’ve been fielding emails and letters, by turns spluttering, coaxing, and patronizing, urging me to stop talking about peak oil, the limits to growth, and the ongoing decline and approaching fall of industrial society, and start talking instead about climate change, overpopulation, capitalism, or what have you. No few of these have come from people who call themselves environmentalists, and tolerably often they reference this or that environmental issue in trying to make their case. 

The interesting thing about this ongoing stream of commentary is that I’ve actually discussed climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism at some length in these essays. When I point this out, I tend to get either a great deal of hemming and hawing, or the kind of sudden silence that lets you hear the surf from miles away. Clearly what I have to say about climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism isn’t what these readers are looking for, and just as clearly they’re not comfortable talking about the reasons why what I have to say isn’t what they’re looking for. 

What interests me is that in the case of climate change, at least, there are aspects of that phenomenon that get the same response. If you ever want to reduce a room full of affluent liberal climate change activists to uncomfortable silence, for example, mention that the southern half of the state of Florida is going to turn into uninhabitable salt marsh in the next few decades no matter what anybody does. You can get the same response if you mention that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is so far advanced at this point that no human action can stop the drowning of every coastal city on the planet—and don’t you dare mention the extensive and growing body of research that shows that the collapse of  major ice sheets doesn’t happen at a rate of a few inches of sea level rise per century, but includes sudden “marine transgressions” of many feet at a time instead. 

This discomfort is all the more interesting because these same things were being loudly predicted not much more than a decade ago by affluent liberal climate change activists. As long as they were threats located off somewhere in the indefinite future, they were eagerly used as verbal ammunition, but each of them vanished from the rhetoric as soon as it stopped being a threat and turned into a reality. I noted in an essay some years back the way that methane boiling out of the Arctic Ocean, which was described in ghoulish detail over and over again as the climate change über-threat, suddenly got dropped like a anthropogenically heated rock by climate change activists the moment it began to happen. 

It’s still happening. As Arctic temperatures soar, rivers of meltwater are sluicing across the Greenland ice cap and cascading into the surrounding oceans, and the ice cap itself, in the words of one climate scientist cited in the article just linked, is as full of holes as Swiss cheese due to meltwater streaming through its innards. While climate change activists insist ever more loudly that we can still fix everything if only the right things happen in the next five years—okay, ten—well, make that fifteen—the cold gray seas off Greenland aren’t listening. The only voices that matter to them come from the roar of waterfalls off the waning ice cap, the hiss of methane bubbles rising from the shallows, and the hushed whispers of temperature and salinity in the dark waters below. 

Glaciologists and marine hydrologists know this, and so do a significant number of climate scientists. It’s the would-be mass movement around climate change that has done its level best to pretend that the only irreversible tipping points are still somewhere in the future. They’re not alone in that; for a good many decades now, the entire environmental movement has been stuck in a broken-record rut, saying over and over again that we still have five years to fix the biosphere. Those of my readers who doubt this might want to pick up the twenty-year and thirty-year updates to The Limits to Growth and compare what they have to say about how long the world has to stave off catastrophe. 

That is to say, the environmental movement these days has become a prisoner of the same delusion of human omnipotence that shapes so much of contemporary culture. 

That’s the context in which Charles Mann’s denunciation of the peak oil heresy needs to be taken. To be acceptable in today’s mainstream environmental scene, a cause has to be stated in terms that feed the fantasy just named. Climate change is a perfect fit, since it starts from an affirmation of human power—“Look at us! We’re so almighty that we can wreck the climate of the whole planet!” —and goes on to insist that all we have to do is turn our limitless might to fixing the climate instead. The campaigns to save this or that species of big cute animal draw their force from the same emotions—“We’re so powerful that we can wipe out the elephants, but let’s keep some around for our own greater glory!” Here again, though, once some bit of ecological damagecan no longer be fixed, everyone finds something else to talk about, because that data point doesn’t feed the same fantasy. 

Peak oil is unacceptable to the environmental establishment, in turn, because there’s no way to spin it as a story of human omnipotence. If you understand what the peak oil narrative is saying, you realize that the power we human beings currently claim to have isn’t actually ours; we simply stole the carbon the planet had stashed in its underground cookie jar and used it to go on a three-century-long joyride, which is almost over. The “narrative of scarcity” Mann denounced so heatedly is, after all, the simple reality of life on a finite planet.  We had the leisure to pretend otherwise for a very brief interval, and now that interval is coming to an end. There’s no melodrama in that, no opportunity for striking grand poses on which our own admiring gaze can rest, just the awkward reality of coming to terms with the fact that we’ve made many stupid decisions and now have to deal with the consequences thereof. 

This is why the one alternative to saving the world that everyone in the mainstream environmental scene is willing to talk about is the prospect of imminent universal dieoff.  Near-term human extinction, the apocalypse du jour ever since December 21, 2012 passed by without incident, takes its popularity from the same fantasy of omnipotence—if we human beings are the biggest and baddest thing in the cosmos, after all, what’s the ultimate display of our power? Why, destroying ourselves, of course! 

There’s a bubbling cauldron of unspoken motives behind the widespread popularity of this delusion of omnipotence, but I suspect that a large part of it comes from an unsuspected source. The generations that came of age after the Second World War faced, from their earliest days, a profoundly unsettling experience that very few of their elders ever had, and then usually in adulthood. In place of comfortable religious narratives that placed the origin of the universe a short time in the past, and its end an even shorter time in the future, they grew up with what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould usefully termed “deep time”—the vision of a past and a future on time scales the human mind has never evolved the capacity to grasp, in which all of human history is less than an eyeblink, and you and I, dear reader, no matter what we do, won’t even merit the smallest of footnotes in the story of life on this planet. 

Growing up on the heels of the baby boom, I experienced all this myself. I read the Life Nature Library about as soon as I could read anything at all; by age six or so I had my favorite dinosaurs, and a little later on succumbed to the beauty of trilobites and the vast slow dances of geology.  By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power. The gospel of “you can have whatever you desire” that Barbara Ehrenreich anatomized so pitilessly in her book Bright-Sidedfound no answering chord in my psyche, and so it never bothered me in the least to think that a hundred million years from now, some intelligent critter of a species not yet spawned might gaze in delight at my fossilized skull, and rub its mandibles together to produce some equivalent of “Ooh, look at that!”

I’m far from the only one these days who sees the unhuman vastness of nature as something to celebrate, rather than something to fear and, at least in imagination, to try to overcome through overblown fantasies of human importance. Still, it’s a minority view as yet, and to judge by the points made earlier in this essay, it seems underrepresented in the mainstream of today’s environmental movement. The fixation on narratives that assign the sole active role to humanity and a purely passive role to nature is, I’ve come to think, a reaction to the collision between two potent cultural forces in contemporary life—the widely promulgated fantasy of infinite entitlement, on the one hand, and on the other, the dawning recognition of our species’ really quite modest, and very sharply limited, place in the scheme of things. 

The conflict between these factors is becoming increasingly hard to avoid, and drives increasingly erratic behaviors, as the years pass. The first and largest generation to follow the Second World War in the developed world is nearing the one limit that affects each of us most personally. Thus it’s probably not an accident that 2030—the currently fashionable date by which humans are all supposed to be extinct—is right around the date when the average baby boomer’s statistical lifespan will run out. To my mind, the attempt to avoid that face-first encounter with limits does a lot to explain why so many boomers bailed into evangelical Protestant fundamentalism in the 1980s, with its promise that Christ would show up any day now and spare them the necessity of dying. It explains equally well why the 2012 hysteria, which made similar claims, attracted so much wasted breath in its day—and why so few people these days are able to come to terms with the reality of scarcity, of limits, and of the end of the industrial age and all its wildly overblown fantasies of self-importance. 

The friend of mine who was dying as I walked the Ocean City beach last weekend was born in 1949, in the midst of the baby boom, but somehow he managed to avoid those antics and the obsessions that drove them. As a Druid among other things—he was one of the very few people I’ve known well who received more initiations than I have—he understood that death is not the opposite of life but the completion of it. When he collapsed at work a few weeks ago and was rushed to the hospital, his friends and fellow initiates in the Puget Sound area took up a steady vigil at his bedside, and kept those of us out of the region informed. The appropriate ceremonies prepared him for his passing, and another set of ceremonies are helping the living cope with his departure. 

A thousand years from now, in all probability, nobody will remember how Corby Ingold lived and died, any more than they will remember the 2015 annual sessions of the Maryland Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, or this blog, or its author. A thousand years from now, for that matter, fossil fuels will be a dim memory, and so will the Greenland ice cap, the Florida peninsula, and a great deal more. It’s just possible, though very unlikely, that human beings will be among those dim memories—we rank with cockroaches and rats among Nature’s supreme generalists, and like them are remarkably hard to exterminate. Whether or not human beings are there to witness it, though, waves like the ones that rolled onto the beach at Ocean City will be rolling over the sunken ruins of Ocean City hotels, just as they rolled above the mudflats where trilobites scurried six hundred million years ago, and as they will roll onto whatever shores rise up when the continents we now inhabit have long since vanished forever. 

The sea is patient.  It has outlived countless species and will outlive countless more, ours among them. Among the things it might be able to teach us, on the off chance that we’re willing to learn, is that the life of a species, like that of an individual, is completed by death, not erased by it, and that its value is measured by the beauty and wisdom it experiences and creates, not by the crasser measurements of brute force and brute endurance.

What is Degrowth? Envisioning a Prosperous Descent

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander

When I was a boy, if ever I were amongst a group of people congregating at 9am on a Sunday morning it was because I was at Church. For better or for worse, I am now a lapsed, or rather, I should say, a collapsed Catholic, although I remain a seeker. But as I look around the world today, especially from my Western perspective, it seems clear enough that God, if he is not yet dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche declared, is, at least, increasingly absent. There seems to be a tension between our spiritual sensibilities and the cultures and systems within which we live. As the poet-musician, Tom Waits, would shout in the voice of a husky wolf: ‘God’s away on business.’

But the absence of God should not imply an absence of religious thinking in our culture or cultures. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite; that our Western religiosity has become ever more intense in recent decades, and what has happened is that we simply switched idols, no longer worshipping the God of Christianity, and instead worshipping at the alter of growth, singing praises to the God of GDP, our saviour, for only in growth will we find redemption. Our high priests now take the peculiar form of neoclassical economists, bankers, and national treasurers. Daniel Bell once wrote in his landmark text, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: ‘Economic growth is the secular religion of advancing industrial nations.’ 

Since the industrial revolution this faith in growth has been unshakable. Today, however, we find ourselves at a moment in history where this faith is beginning to crumble, where the ideological ground beneath us is beginning to move – and opening up before our very eyes is a space, at last, for something new, a space where we are being called to think and live differently. What I would like to talk about this morning is something that has been emerging in recent years within the ever-widening cracks of capitalism, a new story, of sorts, or a new book of many different stories. 

But I am not here to try to replace the god of growth with a new God. I will not pretend to be the next iteration of the high priest, nor am I about to pontificate about a new Doctrine or Dogma to which everyone must subscribe. As the anti-capitalist slogan goes, there may be one No, but there are many Yeses. So today I am going to talk about one of the yeses, which I hope can enrich the multitude of overlapping yeses we have all been exposed to this weekend, just as they have enriched me. To all those who have been part of the collective ‘yes’ this weekend, I thank you and I salute you. 

The vocabulary I am going to focus on today revolves around the emerging ‘degrowth’ movement, which calls for planned economic contraction of developed or overdeveloped nations. I will get into details soon enough, but the basic case for degrowth is surprisingly simple:

1. The existing global economy is already in ecological overshoot, driven by the expansion of high-impact, Western-style consumer lifestyles and the structures of growth that often lock people into those lifestyles. 

2. Great multitudes around the world do not have enough to live with dignity.

3. And, we have a population of 7.3 billion that is still growing. 

Based on those three simple but extremely challenging premises – ecological overshoot, global poverty, and population – it follows that the richest nations must give up the pursuit of ‘more’ and find ways to flourish on less – much less. Less energy, less resources, less waste. And that means less consumerism, less globalisation, and ultimately, less capitalism. 

But degrowth is not just a movement in opposition. Perhaps more than anything else degrowth is about embracing the abundance of sufficiency, it is about knowing how much is enough, and creating the necessary cultures, structures, and systems within which the entire community of life can flourish. 

Degrowth is an ugly word, I admit, but it can’t be co-opted by big business without degenerating into Orwellian double-speak, which is an advantage not to be understated. We know all too well how mainstream politics has emptied ‘sustainable development’ of any critical bite. If something can mean anything, it means nothing. So degrowth, I feel, can create new spaces for conversation and action, by offering important insights into what a transition to a just and sustainable world might look like, and how to get there, even if it may not be the best word to use as the basis of a public relations campaign. 

Before offering a critique of growth and unpacking the notion of degrowth, I’d like to offer a few more words on the idea that cultures and civilisations are founded upon Story, because this gets straight to heart of our turbulent and self-transforming present. 

Stories of civilisation

Charles Eisenstein reminds us that human beings are story-telling creatures. This has always been so. We tell each other stories to ask and explore the question of what it means to be human, even though we usually discover that the answer lies simply in the questioning itself. Every individual life and every society is an enactment of a story people tell themselves about the nature and purpose of their existence and of the world they live in. 

But what happens when we stop believing in our cultural stories and myths? What happens when the structures of meaning that have shaped, not only our culture, but also our identities, begin to breakdown?

Over the last two centuries in the West we have been telling ourselves that economic growth is the most direct path to prosperity, that the good life consists in material affluence, and that science and technology will be able to solve all our social and environmental problems. In recent decades we have even imposed this story on the entire globe, arrogantly declaring the end of history. 

As each day passes, however, this story becomes less credible; its future, less plausible. With disarming clarity we see and increasingly feel that the global economy is destroying the ecological foundations of life, threatening a catastrophe that in fact is already well underway. The fact that capitalism also produces abhorrent inequalities of wealth raises the questions: for whom do we destroy the planet? And to what end? We are told to wait for justice, as if in a Kafkaesque novel, but we are not told how long we must wait. 

As if all this were not enough, the assault of growth capitalism strikes deeper still, to the core of our being. Consumer culture is spreading what can only be described as a spiritual malaise – an apathetic sadness of the soul – as ever-more people discover that material things simply cannot satisfy the universal human craving for meaning. 

Tragically, the cause of this malaise is falsely presented as its cure. When we get that new kitchen, and replace the carpet; when we upgrade the car or house and purchase that new watch or dress – then, perhaps, we will be happy; then our peers will respect us; then we will be loved. So do not question the status quo; fall quietly in line; and be grateful for a life of comfortable unfreedom. 

As our culture continues to pursue this uninspired, narrowly materialistic conception of the good life, too many people are guilty of celebrating a mistaken idea of freedom; a mistaken idea of wealth. 

We know, deep down, of course, that something is very wrong with this cultural narrative; that there must be better, freer, more humane ways to live. But we live in a profit-maximizing corporate world that conspires to keep knowledge of such alternatives from us. Living simply and embracing a humble material standard of living is not good for business. Instead, we are told that consumerism is the peak of civilisation, that beauty is skin deep, and that there are no alternatives. And over time, as these messages are endlessly repeated and normalised, too often our imaginations begin to contract and we lose the ability to envision different worlds. We begin to think that the future must look more or less like the past. 

Today I’d like to tell a different story – because the future is not what it used to be. 

A brief history of growth scepticism

Fortunately, the dominant story today has surprisingly shallow roots. It may look entrenched, but it is more fragile than it seems. The alternative story, or stories, have far deeper roots, and I’d now invite you to join me in putting our hands in the soils of history, to remind ourselves that there is so much to learn from the past about how best to negotiate the future.

In considering a history of growth scepticism one could begin as far back as the indigenous cultures or the ancient philosophers and prophets, ranging from the Buddha, to Socrates, to Diogenes and Aristotle, as well as the Greek and Roman Stoics, all of whom argued in various ways that the well-lived life, and the good economy, do not consist in the accumulation or production of ever-more material wealth. That is, at some point we should stop pursuing materialistic goals and do something else with our lives, and these early thinkers argued that such a point might arrive much earlier than we might at first think. This is to be contrasted with a culture that assumes that more must always be better. 

The relevance of these early thinkers to the limits to growth debate lies in the centrality they placed on the question: ‘How much is enough?’ As Lao-Tzu once said: ‘He who knows he has enough is rich,’ which suggests to me that those who have enough, but who do not know it, are poor. We could call this the philosophical challenge to the growth economy. It challenges us to specify what types of growth we want and what we might want them for. After all, as Henry David Thoreau put it in 1854: ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’

Growth scepticism in its macroeconomic form really begins however with Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill. Writing in 1798, Malthus famously argued in his Essay on the Principle of Population that population would grow faster the rate of food production, ultimately leading to what has come to be known as a ‘Malthusian catastrophe’ – that is, mass population die-off. The major flaw in this prediction was that Malthus didn’t build technological development into his theory and thus grossly underestimated the ability of food production to keep up with population growth. Today the epithet neo-Malthusian is used to mock limits to growth theorists who are said to predict catastrophe based on false premises. 

Despite the fact that Malthus presented a flawed theory, the challenge of population growth has not been solved and remains central to the limits to growth perspective. Currently the world’s population is at 7.3 billion, with the latest research indicating that we are likely to reach 9.5 billion around mid-century and 11 billion by 2100. I think everyone who casually dismisses Malthus should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria and watch as the colony grows until it consumes all the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste. In that light, I ask you to imagine a world of 11 billion people, on our one and only planet, all aspiring to the Western way of life, and consider for a moment whether Malthus may yet get the last, tragic laugh. From a distance, I worry that Earth would look very much like that Petri dish. 

If Malthus was the first collapse theorist in the ‘limits to growth’ school, John Stuart Mill, writing in 1848, was the first theorist to positively advocate for a post-growth economy. In his Principles of Political Economy, he argued that there would come a time when an economy has sufficiently provided for the material foundations of a good life for all, at which point, we should adopt what he called a ‘stationary state’ economy. We should do this, he argued, both for environmental and social reasons. Mill insisted that a stationary state in terms of resource consumption need not imply and stationary state in human culture or technological development. In other words, we don’t need to grow quantitatively to develop qualitatively. 

Of course, the most famous expression of growth scepticism burst onto the scene in 1972, with the Club of Rome’s publication of Limits to Growth. This book used computer modelling to explore various scenarios, arguing that if population, industrial output, and pollution, kept trending ever-upward, there could come a time in the 21st century when the ecosystems of Earth would collapse under the weight of overconsumption, leading to swift declines in industrial output, food production, and thus population. Other scenarios were also explored where collapse was avoided through the use of appropriate technology and the stabilisation of population, resource consumption, and waste streams. Last year my colleague, Dr Graham Turner, published an update of the Limit to Growth scenarios, showing in his calm, objective, evidenced-based way, that civilisation as we know it is closely aligned with the collapse scenario. This is not happy news, but better we know this. 

I will briefly mention one other key figure in this history of growth scepticism, Herman Daly. Herman Daly coined the phrase ‘steady state economics’ to refer to an economy with stable energy and resource demands. Daly deserves recognition for doing more than anyone else to ground economics in physics. But one of the weaknesses of Daly’s theory is that he didn’t emphasis the fact that on an already overburdened planet, the richest nations can’t merely ‘stop growing’ and maintain a steady state. Given the extent of ecological overshoot, the richest nations actually need to contract the energy and resource demands of their economies, and this is why I think the degrowth school of thought adds some necessary clarity. It points out the elephant in the room, which is that overgrown societies need to initiate a process of planned contraction. Note at once that degrowth, being planned economic contraction, must be distinguished from recession, which is unplanned contraction. 

Obviously, degrowth could only ever be a transitional phase – one would not want to be in a permanent state of degrowth. The aim would be to transition through a phase of degrowth to a post-growth or steady state economy that operated within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet on stable energy and resource demands. 

One of the most compelling justifications for degrowth is as a response to climate change and the looming energy scarcity. There is and has always been close connection between energy and economy, and if we are going to give up fossil fuels, as we must, then it follows that we are going to have to run out societies on less energy. Renewable energy cannot fully replace fossil fuels. And if we have significantly less energy, that means we have significantly less production and consumption. Degrowth is one way to conceive of managing the energy descent future. 

The poorest nations, of course, will need to develop their economic capacities in some form, at least to attain some dignified material standard of living, but eventually they too will need to transition to a steady state or post-growth economy. Note, however, that degrowth adopts a particular position on poverty alleviation. Within capitalism, the solution to poverty is through growth. We must grow the economic pie. A rising tide lifts all boats. The degrowth school argues that a rising tide will sink all boats, from which it follows that the primary method of poverty alleviation must be a redistribution of wealth and power, not growth. 

My argument will be that this basic vision of contraction and convergence represents the most coherent response to the overlapping crises we face today. And this is significant, I feel, because unless we have a clear vision of where we want to go, we are unlikely to get there. 

Deconstructing the debate

Despite the long history of growth scepticism, arguments suggesting that there might be ‘limits to growth’ have been, and remain, notoriously controversial. 

Economists of neoclassical inclination tend to argue that these limits to growth theorists just don’t understand economics – plain and simple. In response, the limits to growth school argues that neoclassical economists don’t understand the limits of their own models.

The controversy arises primarily in relation to the concept of GDP. Growth advocates argue that there is no reason why we cannot ‘decouple’ GDP growth from environmental impact in such a way that avoids any perceived limits to growth. Science, technology, and free markets will help us achieve this. 

These growth advocates might acknowledge that current forms of GDP growth are not sustainable, but nevertheless argue that what we need is ‘green growth’ in GDP; that is, growth based in qualitative improvement not quantitative expansion. According to this view, all nations on the planet should continue to pursue growth in GDP, while aiming to ‘decouple’ that growth from environmental impact. This is the dominant conception of sustainability, as recently reiterated through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which didn’t even use the phrase ‘sustainable growth’, it merely called for ‘sustained growth’. 

I’d now like to explain why this idea of ‘decoupling’ growth from impact, while theoretically coherent as far as it goes, is dangerously flawed when grounded in reality. 

The arithmetic of growth

The most powerful way to debunk the growth model of progress is to consider what might happen if we actually got what we were aiming for in terms of GDP growth. When we read United Nations reports, or government reports, or hear the promises of politicians on the left and the right, it seems that the basic vision of global development is that the rich nations keep growing in terms of GDP and, in accordance with justice, over coming decades the poorest attain a similar standard of living, all done in a way that is magically sustainable.

But Tim Jackson, among others, have done the arithmetic of growth, and even on quite modest assumptions expose the flaw at the heart of the growth model – that is, the apparent failure to understand the exponential function. Let me explain. 

If the developed nations – say the OECD nations – grew by 2% over coming decades and by 2050 the global population had achieved a similar standard of living, the global economy would be 15 times larger than it is today. If it grew at 3% from then on it would be 30 times larger than the current economy by 2073, and 60 times larger by the time this century.

Very quickly, you see, the exponential function makes a mockery of the growth model. Note also that if we ask governments around the world, ‘would you rather 4% growth than 3%?’ they’d all say yes, without exception, making this arithmetic of growth all the more absurd. 

Let’s remind ourselves that the global economy is already in gross ecological overshoot; that we’re already devastating the planet and biodiversity; and if we succeed on achieving the trajectory the world is aiming for by 2050 the economy would be 15 times larger than it is today. I wouldn’t much like to think what would happen to the planet if the economy was twice as large as it is today, or four times as large, let alone 15, 30 or 60 times larger over coming decades.

This type of basic arithmetic of growth gives me confidence that the growth model has absolutely no future. At some stage we need to ask: how much is enough? How much is too much?

Absolute decoupling isn’t even happening

At this point, mainstream economists will accuse degrowth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. Everyone knows that we could produce and consume more efficiently than we do today. The problem is that efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

Despite decades of extraordinary technological advancement and huge efficiency improvements, the energy and resource demands of the global economy are still increasing. This is because within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than in reducing impact.

This is the defining, critical flaw in growth economics: the false assumption that all economies across the globe can continue growing while radically reducing environmental impact to a sustainable level. As the arithmetic of growth shows, the extent of decoupling required is simply too great. As we try unsuccessfully to “green” capitalism, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.

Critique of GDP

We should also acknowledge the limitations of GDP as a measure of social progress. GDP is a measure of the total monetary value of the goods and services produced in an economy over a given period. But GDP makes no distinction between expenditure that would seem to genuinely contribute to social wellbeing and expenditure that does not. 

To provide some examples: if there is a terrible oil spill or natural disaster, this is good news in terms of GDP because a huge amount of money will need to be spent cleaning it up. If more marriages break down, forcing couples of hire divorce lawyers, and who then live apart requiring more houses to be built and more furniture to fill these houses, this is good for GDP. If we cut down more of our old growth forests and turn them into McMansions, this is good for GDP. If people are driven to purchase extra security alarms or put bars on their windows due to increased crime, or if more people are put on anti-depressants or diet pills, this is all good for GDP. If we all worked 20 more hours per week this would add to GDP. 

The point is that GDP is an incredibly crude measure of social progress. It is mis-measuring our lives. Today, growth of the economy in terms of GDP is immediately called ‘economic growth’ irrespective of whether the benefits outweigh the costs. But growth of something that happens to be called the economy should only be called ‘economic growth’ if the benefits outweigh the costs. If growth of the economy has more costs than benefits, then that should be called ‘uneconomic growth’. We are living in an age of uneconomic growth, but this reality is totally missed by societies that assume that more GDP is always better than less.

Note that this diagnosis of uneconomic growth also opens up space for the notion of ‘economic degrowth’ – that is, contraction of the economy in terms of GDP where the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Just as an overworked employee could increase wellbeing by working less and being materially poorer, so too is it possible that over-developed nations might also contract in beneficial ways. 

What is degrowth?

When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress. Not so.

Degrowth would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess. We simply don’t need so much stuff – certainly not if it comes at the cost of planetary health, social justice, and personal wellbeing. Consumerism is a gross failure of imagination, a debilitating addiction that degrades nature and doesn’t even satisfy the human need for a meaningful existence. 

Degrowth, by contrast, would involve embracing what has been termed the ‘simpler way’ – producing and consuming less. This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions – a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty.

The lifestyle implications of degrowth and sufficiency are far more radical than the “light green” forms of sustainable consumption that are widely discussed today. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, and recycling are all necessary parts of what sustainability will require of us, but these measures are far from enough.

But this does not mean we must live a life of painful sacrifice. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.

What would life be like in a degrowth society?

In a degrowth society we would aspire to localise our economies as far and as appropriately as possible. This would assist with reducing carbon-intensive global trade, while also building community and resilience in the face of an uncertain and turbulent future. We must ride our bikes more and fly less. 

Through forms of direct or participatory democracy we would organise our economies to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then redirect our energies away from economic expansion. This would be a relatively low-energy mode of living that ran primarily on renewable energy systems.

As noted earlier, renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”.

We would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our simplicity, we would be rich.
Wherever possible, we would grow our own organic food, water our gardens from water tanks, and turn our neighbourhoods into edible landscapes as the Cubans have done in Havana. As my friend Adam Grubb so delightfully declares, we should ‘eat the suburbs’, while supplementing urban agriculture with food from local farmers’ markets. 

More broadly, we must turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. This involves increasing self-sufficiency and reskilling ourselves and our communities to regain practical knowledge that is on the cusp of being lost. 

We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.

But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful, even if it will also entail times of trial. The apparent scarcity of goods can also be greatly reduced by scaling up the sharing economy and the non-monetary economy, which would also enrich our communities.

We do not need to purchase so many new clothes. Let us mend or exchange the clothes we have, buy second-hand, or make our own. In a degrowth society, the fashion and marketing industries would quickly wither away. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes. 

Degrowth sees ugliness in the clothes dryer and elegance in the clothesline. As Leonardo da Vinci once wrote: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” 

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited. We need to redesign our communities based on permaculture principles, nourishing the earth that nourishes us. 

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive. Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

In short, degrowth means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency – but lives that are rich in their non-materialistic dimensions. 

Making the change

A degrowth transition to a steady state economy could happen in a variety of ways. But the nature of this alternative vision suggests that the changes will need to be driven ‘from below’, rather than imposed from the ‘top down’.

What I have said has highlighted a few of the personal and household aspects of a degrowth society based on sufficiency. Meanwhile, the ‘transition towns’ movement shows how whole communities can engage with the idea.

But it is critical to acknowledge the social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to re-imagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that “nice stuff” is the key to happiness. As has already been discussed in this conference, the very idea of having a monetary system based on interest-bearing debt also clashes directly 

Actions at the personal and household levels will never be enough, on their own, to achieve a degrowth economy. We need to create new structures and systems that promote, rather than inhibit, the simpler way of life, even if we have to build these new systems ourselves, at the community level. But these wider changes will never emerge until we have a culture that demands them. So first and foremost, the revolution that is needed is a revolution in consciousness, which will drive change from the grassroots. 

I do not present these ideas under the illusion that they will be readily accepted. The ideology of growth clearly has a firm grip on our society and beyond. Rather, I hold up degrowth up as the most coherent framework for understanding the global predicament and signifying the only desirable way out of it.

Degrowth is utopian!

One of the responses I often get when talking about degrowth is that this vision is hopelessly utopian. Let me outline four brief responses to that common and to some extent understandable objection:

First, I would turn this objection on its head and argue that degrowth is not utopian; limitless growth on a finite planet is utopian. When one understands the exponential function, it becomes clear that it is the growth model that is a fantasy; it is the growth model that is not being realistic in a biophysical sense. Degrowth, I contend, is about recognising realities not transcending realities. 

In another sense, however, the charge of utopianism should perhaps be embraced, not as an indictment, but as a defence. Without the belief that a different world is possible, there can be no hope for our species or our civilisation. We need to have a coherent vision about where we need to go; we need to have a sense of what is being asked of us in an age of overlapping crises. If we do not have some compass in that regard then we can only proceed aimlessly and without direction. Degrowth provides us with a compass. 

Thirdly, the term utopia, of course, means ‘no place’, and in this sense I would again accept the charge of degrowth as being utopian. Granted, there is and has never been a degrowth economy of any significant size. Nevertheless, fragments of the degrowth alternative, or matrix of degrowth alternatives, already exist. It would require another presentation to review these prefigurative examples, but when one looks at grassroots movements based on permaculture, voluntary simplicity, transition towns, local food initiatives, local currencies, worker cooperatives, the Occupy Movement, and ecovillages, one can see glimpses of degrowth in action. So while a degrowth economy, as such, does not yet exist, elements of degrowth are already bubbling under the surface of the existing economy, waiting for some spark – perhaps a crisis, perhaps a revolution in consciousness – that will expand its reach as the growth economy meets its inevitable demise in coming years or decades. 

Fourthly, I would argue degrowth should not be dismissed as utopian in a pejorative sense because it is in our own interests – both long-term and short-term. Degrowth, therefore, does not rely on altruism. If we reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture we will discover that we can consume less but live more. By choosing to do without the superfluous material wealth we will be rewarded with more time, more freedom, more community, more health, more connection with nature, more meaning, and more justice. In short, degrowth is predicated on a new form of flourishing, where paradoxically we decrease our material standards of living but actually increase our quality of life. In this sense I would advocate for degrowth even if social justice and environmental concerns were left to one side. 


Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined, creative challenge we face in coming years and decades – which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal. This process of uncivilising ourselves implies a revolutionary agenda. We cannot merely tinker with the systems and cultures of global capitalism and hope that things will magically improve. Those systems and cultures are not the symptoms but the causes of our overlapping social, economic, and environmental crises, so ultimately those systems and cultures must be replaced with fundamentally different forms of human interaction and organisation, driven and animated by different values, hopes, and myths. 

As citizens of the cosmos, inhabiting this beautiful, unique, fragile planet which is trembling under the weight of our economic recklessness, it is our duty and indeed our destiny to embrace life beyond growth before it embraces us. The end of growth is coming one way or another, due to environmental limits. Better the transition comes by design than disaster. And yet the momentum of two centuries of ‘development’ suggests that changing direction is both necessary and seemingly impossible. In fact, it has been said that in the Anthropocene it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. 

But – if we listen carefully – we can hear that there is a collective rumbling in the world today. It is spreading in all directions, which means it is both coming your way and emanating from you. Currently dormant, our repressed hopes are all embers ready to ignite, awaiting a rush of oxygen that will flare our utopian ambitions. Breathe deeply, they say, and demand the impossible. Let us stoke the fire of ecological democracy that is burning in our eyes, not because we think we will succeed in producing a just and sustainable world, but because if we do not try, something noble in our hearts and spirits will be lost. As John Holloway writes: ‘We need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we believe to be wrong’.

The creative task of managing our civilisational descent – daunting though it is – promises to be both meaningful and fulfilling, provided we are prepared to let go of dominant conceptions of the good life and begin telling ourselves new stories of prosperity based on the unfashionable values of sufficiency, frugality, mindfulness, appropriate technology, self-governance, permaculture, and local economy. 

We should explore alternatives not because we are ecologically compelled to live differently – although we are – but because we are human and deserve the opportunity to flourish in dignity, within sustainable bounds. This does not mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of ages to advance beyond consumerism, in order to produce something better, freer, and more humane – even if it will also be more humble. This revolution, no doubt, will require all the wisdom, creativity, and compassion we can muster. But impossible things have happened before. And if we fail, may we fail with dignity.

Let us declare, in chorus, that providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is the defining objective of a just and sustainable world, a world that we should try to build by working together in free association. And let us show that material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives. 

Thus our defining challenge is to seek out and embody the ‘middle way’ between over-consumption and under-consumption, where basic material needs are sufficiently met but where attention is then redirected away from superfluous material pursuits, in search of non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. Those sources are abundant – inexhaustible – if only we knew it. It is time to abandon affluence and turn to the realm of the spirit to satisfy our hunger for infinity. 

It is painfully clear, of course, that governments around the world are not interested in moving ‘beyond growth’ or questioning consumer culture, and there are few signs of things changing at the top. Empire, we can be sure, will not contemplate it’s own self-annihilation; nor will it lie down like a lamb at the mere request of the environmental movement. Empire will struggle for existence all the way down. 

It follows that the revolution that is needed must emerge ‘from below’, driven into existence by diverse, inspired, and imaginative social movements that seek to produce a post-capitalist society. We must endeavour to live the alternative worlds into existence, here and now, and show them to be good, while at the same time recognising that the Great Transition that is needed will likely come only at the end of a rough road – after or during a series of crises. Can we turn the crises of our times into opportunities for civilisational renewal? That is the question, the challenge, posed by our turbulent moment in history.
In the words of Theodore Roszak:

There is one way forward: the creation of flesh and blood examples of low-consumption, high quality alternatives to the mainstream pattern of life. This we can see happening already on the counter-cultural fringes. And nothing – no amount of argument or research – will take the place of such living proof. What people must see is that ecologically sane, socially responsible living is good living; that simplicity, thrift and reciprocity make for an existence that is free.

Everything else follows from the reaffirmation of life; in the absence of such reaffirmation, all else is lost. Our task, therefore, is to expose and better understand the myths that dominate our destructive and self-transforming present, and to envision what life would be like, or could be like, if we were to liberate ourselves from today’s myths and step into new myths. We search for grounded hope between naïve optimism and despair. Without vision and defiant positivity, we will perish.

It was Buckminster Fuller who once said: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ 

This approach to social transformation essentially expresses the idea that examples are powerful, that examples can send ripples through culture further than we might ever think possible, creating cultural currents, that can turn into subcultures, that sometimes explode into social movements and which, on very rare occasions, can spark a revolution in consciousness that changes the world. In an age when it can sometimes seem like there is no alternative to the carbon-intensive, consumer way of life, being exposed to a real-world example of a new way of living and being has the potential to expand and radicalise the ecological imagination, and in those moments when we are able to break through the crust of conventional thinking we see, all at once, that the world as it is, is not how the world has to be.

‘Let the record show that we chose to thrive in simplicity rather than perish in affluence.’* 

Thank you.

*quoting Mark A. Burch

Happy Samhain, Dia De Los Muertos, and Halloween!

Written by Jonna Johnson

Let us use these days to enjoy the thin veil between the worlds, commemorate friends and loved ones who have passed on, and scare the pants off one another.  This time of year offers us a fun way to rejoice with our ancestors, and appreciate the cycles of life and seasons.  Doing so can bring more tradition and rhythm into our lives, as well as joy and love.  We can celebrate by creating seasonal foods together, make leaf-creatures with the kids (your own kids or borrow a few), carve interesting pumpkins, create autumn-inspired crafts as gifts and decorations, and more.  Below are links to help create less waste and more meaning this holiday season.  And remember, 95% of chocolate is produced using child labor, human trafficking, and/or practices that devastate the land (according to Equal Exchange and others).  Please search the network for fair trade, ethically-sourced, community-based, and/or organic candy in your area!

Americans consume millions of pounds of chocolate per year, but where does it all come from? Forced child labor and child trafficking are a rampant, documented problem in the conventional chocolate industry, but big companies have done little to solve this crisis. So what can you do?

The Dark Side of Chocolate, a film by Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano, is easily accessed and viewed through a quick internet search.

Below are sites that offer tips on sustainable Halloweens – the most sustainable suggestion, of course, keep Reusing that which already exists!!!


Goldilocks and the three prices of oil

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

We all know Goldilocks from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which the young maiden wanders into the home of the bears and samples some porridge that happens to be sitting on the dinner table. The first bowl is too hot, the second is too cold and the third is just right.

Like a corporate version of Goldilocks, the oil industry has been wandering into the world marketplace in recent years often finding an oil price that is either too high such as in 2008 and therefore puts the brakes on economic growth undermining demand and ultimately crashing the price as it did in 2009. Or it finds the price too low as it is today therefore making it impossible to earn profits necessary for exploiting the high-cost oil that remains to be extracted from the Earth's crust. Oil that hovered around $100 per barrel from 2011 through much of 2014 seemed to be just right. But those prices are now long gone.

Violent swings in the price of oil in the last decade have made it difficult for the industry to plan long term to produce consistent supplies at moderate prices. This has important implications for future supplies which I will discuss later.

The great political power of the oil industry has led many to conclude erroneously that the industry must also somehow control the price of oil. If the industry has such power, it is doing a really lousy job of using it.

It is true that in times of robust demand, OPEC can maintain high prices by limiting oil production in member countries. But when demand softens, OPEC rarely exhibits the necessary discipline as a group to cut production. Typically, Saudi Arabia shoulders most of the burden of reduced production under such circumstances.

Which is why it was so shocking when, during this most recent swoon in the oil price, the desert kingdom responded with an emphatic "no." No, Saudi Arabia will not curtail its production. And, since all the other OPEC members are unable to challenge Saudi Arabia's power--which consists of the ability to add production to counter cuts by others--the price of oil has stayed low.

The stated reason for this move is that Saudi Arabia wants to undermine American tight oil production. And, low prices are doing just that. The U.S. oil rig count peaked in October last year at 1609. In the week just passed that number was 595.

The low-price strategy seems to be knocking the competition out of the game. And, it's difficult to imagine investors in the future dumping great gobs of new money so freely into tight oil wells and the companies that drill them after having been thoroughly burned this time around. And, that's probably true even if the price of oil recovers significantly. There will always be the fear that Saudi Arabia will flood the market with oil and crash the price. (This is not, in fact, what Saudi Arabia has done so far. In the most recent oil price rout, the Saudis simply refused to cut the kingdom's then current production level--as it had regularly done in the past--even as demand softened and prices fell.)

Probably one of the best illustrations of the problematic future of oil supply is the recent abandonment of a multi-billion dollar arctic oil drilling project by Shell Oil Company, the American arm of the European-based Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Shell called its arctic discoveries "marginal" and indicated that it would cease drilling there for the "foreseeable future."

This emphasizes that the remaining oil available for extraction is both difficult-to-get and high-cost. It turns out that the oil discovered by Shell's arctic project comes in small packages instead of the giant reservoirs which have powered the oil industry and modern civilization up to now.

What this implies is that limitations on future supplies may result from the price of oil being too low. Contrary to the public perception that such limits would be accompanied by high prices, it is precisely high prices that make it possible to exploit the marginal deposits that are unprofitable today.

Analyst Gail Tverberg has elaborated this thesis in considerable detail on her blog Our Finite World starting as far back as 2007. Similar ideas have also been advanced by energy analyst and consultant Steven Kopits. (A 2014 presentation by Kopits is available here.) Tverberg's analysis is that high energy prices, particularly high oil prices, tend to suppress economic growth leading to recession and price declines. The lower incomes and lack of employment that accompany recessions make oil--despite its lower price--less affordable than is generally recognized. Lack of demand is partly the result of crimped living standards--which keep prices low, which, in turn, make it unprofitable to exploit high-cost oil.

Now, oil demand actually went up somewhat in the face of recent lower prices. But if Tverberg's thesis is correct, then demand won't hold up when the economy sinks into a recession or stalls close to zero growth. If the world economy shrinks or merely stalls, as it now appears to be doing, we may be in for a long stagnation for other reasons as the world works off debt built up previously in a long 30-year credit boom.

It seems only logical that if world oil production drops as a result of low demand and low prices, at some point shortages will appear and prices will rise even if the world economy remains in a slump. That may happen, but the big question will be this: Just how high can those prices rise before financially strapped consumers can't afford to pay more?

If that price turns out to be somewhat less than $100 a barrel, very few deposits of unconventional oil such as arctic and deepwater oil, tight oil from deep shale deposits, and tar sands will be profitable to produce. And these unconventional sources have been virtually the only engines of oil production growth in recent years. The International Energy Agency, a consortium of 29 countries which tracks energy developments, is already on record saying that conventional oil production peaked in 2006.

With violent swings in oil prices continuing, it's hard to imagine world markets delivering an oil price indefinitely above $100--which would encourage growth in unconventional oil production--but not above, say, $130, which could easily send the economy into recession and lower prices below the point of profitability for unconventional oil. It seems that either Tverberg's stagnation scenario will limit production because of low prices or that a return to robust economic growth will be doomed to be short-lived because oil prices rise above what the world economy can bear.

It's always possible that some technological breakthrough will allow us to get out of this cycle. But we should not count on this soon. As I have pointed out, the most recently touted "new" technology, the technology that opened the deep shale deposits in the United States for oil drilling, has a 60-year history of development:

For those who point to hydraulic fracturing as a recent technological breakthrough, they need to do a little research. Hydraulic fracturing was first used in 1947. More than 30 years later in the early 1980s, building on government research, George Mitchell and his company Mitchell Energy and Development began pursuing natural gas in deep shale deposits. It took Mitchell 20 years of experimentation, government help and government incentives to perfect the type of hydraulic fracturing which is now used to release both natural gas and oil from deep shales. It took another 10 years for his methods to be widely deployed by the oil and gas industry.

For truly revolutionary technology to make an important contribution to the world's oil supply over the next 20 years, that technology would have to be available today, but not yet widely deployed. The cycles of innovation in the oil industry do not move nearly as quickly as those in, say, the semiconductor industry. Major breakthroughs in oil extraction require long lead times, and there doesn't seem to be anything but marginal improvements in some existing techniques in prospect for many years to come.

For now, we may be experiencing limits in oil production that are not absolute, but relative to what the world economy can afford. Of course, we could rework our infrastructure and daily practices to use less oil or even to begin to phase it out altogether. But, don't look for that kind of dramatic move anytime soon, either.

Death by Fracking

Originally posted on

Written by Chris Hedges

DENVER—The maniacal drive by the human species to extinguish itself includes a variety of lethal pursuits. One of the most efficient is fracking. One day, courtesy of corporations such as Halliburton, BP and ExxonMobil, a gallon of water will cost more than a gallon of gasoline. Fracking, which involves putting chemicals into potable water and then injecting millions of gallons of the solution into the earth at high pressure to extract oil and gas, has become one of the primary engines, along with the animal agriculture industry, for accelerating global warming and climate change.

The Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers who are profiting from this cycle of destruction will—once clean water is scarce and crop yields decline, once temperatures soar and cities disappear under the sea, once droughts and famines ripple across the globe, once mass migrations begin—surely profit from the next round of destruction. Collective suicide is a good business, at least until it is complete. It is a pity most of us will not be around to see the power elite go down.

I met recently in Denver with three of the country’s leading anti-fracking activists: Gustavo Aguirre Jr. of KEEN (Kern Environmental Enforcement Network) in California; Kandi Mossett with the Indigenous Environmental Network and from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, the second-largest oil-producing state because of hydraulic fracturing; and Shane Davis, a longtime campaigner against fracking and the founder of, a data mining organization that exposes what fracking corporations are doing in communities around the country.

The activists are waging a war against a corporate state that is deaf and blind to the rights of its citizens and the imperative to protect the ecosystem. The corporate state, largely to pacify citizens being frog-marched to their own execution, passes environmental laws and regulations that, at best, slow the ongoing environmental destruction. Corporations, which routinely ignore even these tepid restrictions, largely write the laws and legislation designed to regulate their activity. They rewrite them or overturn them as the focus of their exploitation changes. They turn public hearings on local environmental issues into choreographed charades or shut them down if activists succeed in muscling their way into the room to demand a voice. They dominate the national message through a pliable and bankrupt corporate media and slick public relations. Elected officials are little more than corporate employees, dependent on industry money to stay in office and, when they retire from “public service,” salivating for jobs in the industry. Environmental reform has become a joke on the public. And the Big Green environmental groups are complicit because they rely on donors, at times from the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries; they are silent about the reality of corporate power, largely ineffectual, and part of the fiction of the democratic process.

Resistance will be local. It will be militant. It will defy the rules imposed by the corporate state. It will turn its back on state and NGO environmental organizations. And it will not stop until corporate power is destroyed or we are destroyed.

“Forty years after the major environmental laws were adopted in the U.S., and 40 years after trying to regulate the damage caused by corporations to the natural environment and our communities, by almost every major environmental statistic things are worse now than they were before,” Thomas Linzey, the executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, told me recently.

The fracking industry is omnivorous, biologist Davis noted. It “is so intoxicated and bloated by greed that it has moved into our backyards, near our school playgrounds, our hospitals, universities, our day cares, our state parks, our national grasslands, and has its sights on the rest of our public lands across America unless we stop them,” he said.

In writing “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” the cartoonist Joe Sacco and I visited devastated “sacrifice zones” where corporate power manipulates judicial and political power, and has free rein to impoverish families, destroy or abandon infrastructure, plunder and pollute the environment and shape the message disseminated by mass communications. Those who organize and resist are met with intimidation and violence from the state and private security firms in the pay of corporations.

Sacco and I wrote the book from the poorest pockets of the United States, including Camden, N.J., the nation’s poorest city, per capita, among those with more than 65,000 residents; the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, S.D., where the average life expectancy for a male is only 48 and where at any one time 60 percent of residents have neither running water or electricity; devastated coal fields of southern West Virginia where the tops of Appalachian mountains have been blown off to extract coal seams and the landscape has become a wasteland; and produce fields in Florida where undocumented workers are not only sickened by pesticides but at times are held in bondage and slavery.

The point of the book, whose last chapter takes place in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan during the Occupy movement, is this: These sacrifice zones went first and we are next. We have all become part of a sacrifice zone. It behooves us to understand what unfettered, unregulated corporate power looks like, how it operates and what levels of wholesale destruction it inflicts in the lust for profit on human beings and the environment. If we do not know how corporate power works, and the lengths it will travel to exploit us and the ecosystem, we will not be able to fight it. Both in theological terms and literally, these corporate forces are forces of death.

There is a low-level insurgency, in many of the sacrifice zones and elsewhere, against the corporations that carry out destruction and plunder, including fracking. This is an insurgency worth joining. It is a battle far more important than the charade of presidential elections. Real change will come only from below. It will come from those participating in efforts such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-fracking movement and the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It will come from radical organizations that organize outside the system and physically impede corporate destruction. It will come through open revolt. Our fate as a species will be determined on these lonely and difficult battlegrounds.

The fracking industry, bolstered by the security and surveillance state, has devoted tremendous resources to monitoring, demonizing and criminalizing anti-fracking activists. Activists are followed, harassed, arrested and defamed in corporate-funded propaganda campaigns even as their communities see their drinking water poisoned, air polluted, greater earthquake activity, the dumping of radioactive waste on their land, and farm animals sickened, born with birth defects and killed by drinking contaminated water.

The oil and gas industry, often backed by state governments, routinely sues communities that have asserted their democratic rights to ban fracking. The corporations know that communities in most cases do not have the resources to challenge high-priced corporate legal teams and lobbyists. This means that for citizens seeking redress, the courts are largely useless. High-court decisions in Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico, along with a ruling by the state Senate in Texas and a law passed in Oklahoma, deny the right of communities to impose fracking bans. So, in effect, when you raise consciousness about the dangers of fracking, when you organize to protect yourselves and your children, when you pass a ban in a democratic vote, your action is nullified by the courts or the state. The consent of the governed becomes a farce.

“We are being sued by our own governor,” Davis said of John Hickenlooper, whose Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has joined a lawsuit against the city of Longmont to challenge a vote by Longmont residents to ban fracking. “Communities cannot protect themselves. There are homes in Colorado where basements have filled up with explosive levels of gases from previous fracking industry operations, sending people to burn centers. There are homes where people can light their tap on fire because of high levels of thermogenic methane in the water. But the victims of fracking are prohibited by law from safeguarding themselves.”

There are more than 15 million Americans, many of them children, who live within a mile of a fracking site. Most are being exposed daily to a deadly brew of toxins. Because the oil and gas industry is not required under law to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, communities are not told what is being injected into their groundwater. The array of carcinogens is known to the public only through analysis of samples taken at sites. These samples include endocrine disruptors and chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Infrared cameras set up by activists show plumes of methane and other hydrocarbon gases, invisible to the naked eye, spiraling upward from underground fracking sites. Methane is a greenhouse gas whose potential for trapping heat and therefore for global warming has been estimated at 86 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Those who live around fracking sites often suffer skin rashes, nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory problems, premature births and cancers. Yet the corporations, along with our governments, doggedly refuse to link the diseases to fracking. This is a pattern familiar to all who live in sacrifice zones. Corporations have no intention of being held accountable for what they do. That would cost money.

“A lot of people around me have cancer,” said Mossett. “I’m a cancer survivor. It has become something that is normal for us. It comes in all forms—bone cancer, lung cancer, uterine cancer and prostate cancer, amongst others. Even before the fracking began we had seven coal-fired power plants in North Dakota. Every inch of our over 11,000 miles of rivers, lakes and streams are already contaminated with mercury. Then fracking started to take off around 2006. People, at first, had no clue what was coming. Infrastructure started to be built. We got water towers through the rural water department. Many saw this as positive. A brand new bridge was built over Lake Sakakawea.”

But once the infrastructure was in place it became apparent that it had been built to facilitate the extraction of oil by fracking, not improve the lives of those on North Dakota’s reservations.

White people are not the only problem. The fracking corporations, Mossett said, easily bought off local tribal leaders. “Our tribal council [of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation] sold us out. The council gave away sovereignty rights to allow the oil industry to operate on tribal lands. The council signed contracts to give away parcels of land. It set up front companies, since you have to be native if you frack on native land.” [The events that Mossett criticized occurred before the election of a new chairman last year.]

Cancer rages like a plague across the reservations.

“The Centers for Disease Control do not show clusters of cancers in our communities,” Mossett said. “This is because illness and sickness are coded out of the place where referrals are made. Since we don’t have a hospital to treat these illnesses, patients are referred to a clinic like the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. So the huge clusters of cancers on the reservation are not properly documented.”

The fracking industry in much of North Dakota, rather than extract the subterranean gas, burns it off in jets of flame known as flares. It trucks out the more valuable oil.

“The flares burn all day and all night,” Mossett said. “There are hundreds of them. They are loud. There is enough gas produced from these flares, some have estimated, to heat half a million homes every day. And all this is going into the atmosphere. Then came the waste injection sites. The trucks began to dump what they called ‘produced water’ [toxics and water injected underground and later brought to the surface as wastewater] onto the roads. It covered our roads. It filled our ditches with toxic chemicals. I drove past a ditch near Mandaree on the Fort Berthold Reservation and it was on fire. The fields and pastures along the roads are being poisoned.”

The dilemma facing activists is that the enemy is not only the corporations but also the federal and state governments. Federal and state authority is a tool used by corporations to make legal what should be illegal. Nonviolent, democratic dissent is criminalized. This creates a terrifying dilemma. If, as it does, the law slavishly serves the interests of the corporate criminals, how is justice to be obtained? If the law, as it does, outlaws legitimate democratic and nonviolent dissent, how is dissent to be expressed? If we cannot receive, as we cannot, justice from the courts or state and federal legislators, where will justice come from? If we cannot legally impede the destruction of our communities, what are the physical methods we will have to employ to save ourselves?

“The corporations fight us with the government,” said Aguirre. “The DOGGR [California’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources] makes the claim that activists want to take jobs from neighbors and families. It claims we are killing the economy. ... The acute health impacts that occur in the communities, the disproportionate toxic fumes that these communities breathe, are never factored in. Our community members are already marginalized. They live in low-income communities. They can’t afford or don’t have health care coverage. And they don’t have a voice.

“I have been followed by numerous diesel engine trucks [as I made] toxic tours with my constituents, taking them to fracking projects and refineries to percolation ponds, evaporation ponds,” Aguirre said. “I’ve been threatened at public hearings. I’ve been called a communist and a socialist. I’ve been called a mouth runner, someone who has been paid by some group to stir up the community. The board supervisors of my community have told me to stop doing what I am doing. These are the same elected officials who are cashing in on the industry.”

Justice will come by defying the institutions that claim to maintain justice. Truth will be heard by defying the institutions that claim to speak truth. The law will be upheld by breaking the law. Power will be obtained by overthrowing the power of the corporation state. We will save ourselves by facing the grim and unpleasant truth that all of the established mechanisms designed to carry out reform, including what we still call American democracy, is in corporate hands. We must unleash the power of the powerless. We must use our bodies to obstruct these forces of death to protect life. We must refuse to cooperate in our own destruction. Fracking is one assault. There are many, many others. But they all will lead to the same fatal conclusion if we do not rise up and resist.

I admire these activists, men and women who soldier forward. They understand the imperative of a new radicalism. They speak in the language of revolution. They know if we are to have a future it will entail mass acts of sustained civil disobedience and jail time. This resistance will mean that we court violence, maybe even our deaths. Corporations will use every weapon in their vast arsenals to bend us to their will. But if we do not begin to openly rebel, if we do not reverse the corporate coup d’état that has taken place, the world bequeathed to our children will be a holocaust.

'Blood & Oil', North Dakota, and dreams not exactly fulfilled

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

Last week a new television series set amidst the North Dakota oil boom debuted. Blood & Oil tells the story of locals and newcomers striking it rich in The Bakken, an oil formation that has been heralded as containing more oil than Saudi Arabia--a wildly misleading* but understandably alluring slogan.

Based on the first episode we can conclude that this program is not actually a contemporary drama, but rather a period piece--specifically the period when North Dakota was booming from about, say, 2009 to sometime in mid-2014. And, therein lies the story. For Blood & Oil, above all, must be a tragedy of broken dreams if it is to live up to its realism credentials.

We must look beyond the fact that the show is shot in Utah to the substance of the series. When we do, we see the ever-present gambler's mentality that dominates the American mind. It did not go unnoticed that America was a land of plenty from the very beginning of European settlement. One of the first European explorers and founder of the first permanent English settlement, Capt. John Smith, observed:

And in diverse places that abundance, of fish lying so thick with their heads above the water [that] as for want of nets (our barge driving among them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan, but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with. Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish had any of us ever seen in any place so swimming in the water...

Even though Smith's gamble of starting over in the New World got off to a rough start for him and his fellow settlers at Jamestown, those who came after did find the promised riches of land, forests, minerals and animals unimagined in the Europe of that day.

So, the gamble paid off often enough to convince many others on the European side of the Atlantic and ultimately the Asian side of the Pacific to make the journey.

With the coming of the Bakken oil boom we modern Americans have recreated that journey. Those needing work and with only minimal skills or possessed of a restless spirit found a new life in North Dakota, a booming oil province, that--when it came to oil--seemed like the limitless wilderness first encountered by Europeans landing on the American continent.

In Blood & Oil Hap Briggs is a poor farmer's son who has built up large holdings of ranch land which, of course, have oil under them. He gets into the oil business himself and can't get enough of it.

Newcomer Billy LeFever breezes into town with his wife, Cody, who overhears the cellphone call of a landman discussing the leasing of drilling rights for a ranch, the name of which he repeats back to his boss. Cody tells Billy who then looks up the ranch in the county land records and realizes that the key to exploiting the oil there is a small piece of land that allows access.

Through machinations which appear to be illegal, Billy, who is broke, raises the necessary money to buy an option on that key piece of land. He then makes his first million offering the option to none other than Hap Briggs.

It is shrewdness (and willingness to skirt the law) which brings Billy riches. He's intelligent, but not overly so. His big idea for making money in North Dakota was to open laundromats--an idea that gets dashed in the first episode when a traffic accident sends him, his wife and his washing machines into a ravine. The machines are ruined, but Billy and Cody escape essentially unharmed.

What we are really watching, however, is two stories. The second story is one of a human culture that has never abandoned hunting and gathering--though we moderns imagine that we would never stoop to anything so prehistoric. And yet, hunting and gathering is essentially what we do to get all the minerals we use including oil. And by the way, oil isn't "produced" as we so reflexively say, it is merely extracted. Nature does all the work over millions of years, so humans don't have to--or at least don't have to do very much.

This is a lottery designed by nature and exploited by humans lucky enough to have oil on their land or enough capital at their disposal to lease the right parcels. But it's a lottery with a special twist. If you are Hap Briggs, you can invest all your new fortune in getting even more oil out of the ground to make your fortune bigger.

But when the bust comes, you can end up broke. Well, the bust has come to real-life North Dakota. In less that one year oil prices went from around $100 a barrel to under $50. As a result, we are seeing bankruptcies among the oil independents who were kings just a year ago. And, of course, all the other new businesses designed to serve the burgeoning North Dakota population will have their ranks thinned considerably--as the exodus begins among those now without work in the wake of a drastic reduction in drilling activity.

And with severely reduced drilling, North Dakota oil production is bound to go down since we already know that the rate of production decline for existing wells averages 40 percent in the first year.

So the question is: When Blood & Oil's storyline bumps up against the realities of 2015, what will become of Hap and Billy? And, what will become of the bustling fictitious city of Rock Springs? I think a city in decline with its heroes penniless or nearly so will be of little interest to American audiences. Such a turn of events in fictional North Dakota will likely mark the beginning of the end for the series.

Until that day viewers can follow actor Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame who has swapped the cool elegance of pastel summer wear for a cowboy outfit that seems to hang attractively on his character, Hap Briggs. When the time comes, Johnson will simply change clothes again and go on to a new role--just as many new North Dakotans are now doing to seek work elsewhere in the face of a bust that according to the oil industry wasn't supposed to happen for decades.

Arthur Morgan And A Century Of Sustainability

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Bob Brecha

During this week’s sustainability commentary, University of Dayton professor Bob Brecha ties the work of Arthur Morgan and the Miami Conservancy District to our modern concept of sustainability.

It’s really hard to be in the Miami Valley area for very long without hearing about the Great Flood of 1913.   Cold spring days in March and torrential rains – about 10 inches over three days - resulted in devastating damage to communities all along the Great Miami River.  In today’s dollars, the destruction was around two billion dollars.   And that was not the first flood Dayton had experienced.  In fact, disaster struck every twenty years or so over the previous century of the city’s existence. But as Dayton continued to grow, the situation was clearly intolerable.

After the flood, a group of civic leaders knew that something had to be done. They turned to an engineer named Arthur Morgan to lead the effort to find a solution.  Often, and especially a century ago, engineers tended to address a complex and large-scale problem by quickly building big things and moving lots of earth, as well as people.  

But Morgan had a somewhat different approach to the task at hand. Often we think of rivers in isolation from their surroundings.  But in reality, the waters flow to other rivers and eventually to lakes and oceans. Morgan knew he would have to deal with not just the Great Miami River as it flowed through the City of Dayton, but the entire watershed, including the Mad River, the Stillwater, Wolf Creek and Twin Creek.

First, he worked to understand the whole river and its watershed as a system – realizing along the way the watershed did not care about political jurisdictions.  Second, he wanted to resolve the flooding danger once and for all. He spent a lot of time with his engineers studying long historical records of flood recurrences in Europe.  Based on that research, he concluded that to be safe from any foreseeable flood, Dayton would need a system to handle an event about 40% greater than the 1913 event.  One option might have been simply to build very high levees along the river, channeling any conceivable amount of water through the city – and downriver to the next town in the water’s path.  Instead, he came up with the idea of dry dams, which act passively to allow water to flow in normal, or less-threatening conditions, but which retain water behind the dams under infrequent high-water events. Although some people had to be displaced as land was taken over for these retention areas, we gained recreation areas – and avoided repeated disasters. Out of this thinking came the Miami Conservancy District, celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year.  Not many realize that MCD is funded to protect the Dayton region from flooding by its own authority that is separate from political boundaries.

I think that one of the most interesting parts of Morgan’s project is how he dealt with the workers on the construction sites. He knew what kind of trouble male workers could get up to if they are dumped on a site for months or years at a time. He himself was a teetotaler who didn’t smoke or gamble. He couldn’t bear the thought of creating the conditions for men to lose their moral bearings.  So, instead of just prohibiting undesirable behavior, Morgan decided there should be a town at each of the five construction sites with comfortable housing, modern conveniences, schools and stores – everything that would make life attractive for families.

I consider Arthur Morgan’s efforts as being in many ways a model of how we can think about constructing resilient, sustainable systems.  Learning from history and experience, thinking about future generations, respecting nature, and taking the needs of people seriously – that’s not a bad starting point.

Sustained economic growth: United Nations mistakes the poison for the cure

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander

On the surface, the Sustainable Development Goals, soon to be confirmed by the United Nations, seem noble and progressive. They seek to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and hunger while creating sustainable and resilient societies.

But look beneath the surface of this pleasant rhetoric and one comes face to face with a far more ominous vision of development: a vision that is fundamentally compromised by corporate interests and ultimately doomed to failure, if not catastrophe.

The defining flaw in the United Nations’ agenda is the naïve assumption that “sustained economic growth” is the most direct path to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

This faith in the god of growth is fundamentally misplaced. It has been shown, for example, that for every $100 in global growth merely $0.60 is directed toward resolving global poverty. Not only is this an incredibly inefficient pathway to poverty alleviation, it is environmentally unsupportable.

By championing economic growth, the Sustainable Development Goals are a barely disguised defence of the market fundamentalism that underpins business-as-usual. But in an age of planetary limits, sustained economic growth is not the solution to our social and environmental ills, but their cause.

We need an alternative vision and an alternative set of goals. So here are five ideas for genuinely sustainable development.

Prohibit corporate campaign funding of political parties and recreate a free press

At first this point may seem tangential to notions of “sustainable development”, but it is fundamental. We need to acknowledge the fact that corporate interests have acquired a grossly undemocratic influence on governments around the world, privileging profits over people and planet. The negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership are perhaps the most flagrant example of this, but the Sustainable Development Goals, by entrenching growth economics, are potentially just as concerning.

Furthermore, as mass media has become concentrated into fewer hands in recent decades, notions of a “free press” – necessary to any functioning democracy – have become increasingly compromised. This concentration of power gives a few big players (such as Rupert Murdoch, Facebook and Google) an alarming capacity to insidiously shape the public consciousness according to their narrow ideologies.

In order to move toward a world that genuinely promotes the diverse interests of people and planet, first we need to reclaim democracy. This can be achieved, in part, by prohibiting corporate funding of elections and ensuring that concentrations of media are significantly limited.

We need people, not profits, shaping collective action – otherwise any hope for sustainable development is lost.

Adopt new, alternative global indicators to progress “beyond GDP”

It is now widely recognised that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a very poor measure or proxy for societal progress. It is merely a monetary valuation of the all the goods and services produced by a nation over a specific period of time.

GDP makes no distinction between market transactions that contribute positively to sustainable well-being (such as buying bicycles, solar panels or fresh food) and those that diminish it (gas-guzzlers, guns, cigarettes). Furthermore, GDP tells us nothing about civil liberties or the distribution of wealth in a society. It tells us nothing about whether communities are rich or poor in culture, trust or leisure. And it tells us nothing about whether an economy is undermining critical ecosystems.

Nevertheless, growth in GDP remains the overriding objective of governments around the world. This means that policies are inevitably given a pro-growth bias. On an already over-burdened planet, however, any coherent sustainable development agenda must be framed by an economics “beyond growth”.

We can begin this transition by adopting alternative indicators to progress such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. These are not exact measures of well-being but are a vast improvement on GDP. Significantly, they could open up space for governments to enact policies that genuinely contribute to sustainable well-being, even if doing so would produce a “degrowth” economy of planned contraction of energy and resource demands.

We can live more with less.

Reduce military spending and redirect funds to other forms of national security

If a government is willing to explore a form of development that does not depend on economic growth, it will need to be assured that doing so does not jeopardise its geopolitical security. After all, it is hard to imagine any nation giving up its balance of economic or military power for environmental and social justice reasons if that would imply an increased threat of invasion or dominance by another nation.

Therefore, any sustainable development transition beyond growth will require a planned and equitable contraction of military spending, facilitated by an intergovernmental agreement to that end.

Fortunately, military spending – currently at US$1.7 trillion per year globally – is a zero-sum game. That is, if all nations increase their spending on weapons then no nation is relatively better off.

But similarly, if all nations decreased their spending on weapons then no nation should be relatively worse off either. Radical though it may sound, sustainable development implies spending less on killing each other and more on supporting each other and the Earth we hold in common.

Furthermore, a strong case can be made that threats of military invasion are by no means the most pressing threats to “national security” in the world today. It would be more sensible to invest in protecting against other security threats, including climate change.

Let humanity be wise enough to reduce military spending by 3% per year and re-invest those funds in renewable energy, poverty alleviation and family planning initiatives to stabilise global population.

Declare a moratorium on new coalmines, establish a strong carbon tax and abolish fossil fuel subsidies

Carbon budget analyses seek to determine scientifically how much carbon humanity can release into the atmosphere if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. In its recent reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised that carbon budgets are the most rigorous way to frame the climate problem.

If we are to act on this scientific basis, however, things need to change drastically. A recent carbon budget analysis concludes that 88% of coal must stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change.

Other analyses are more challenging still. In that light, any coherent sustainable development agenda must at least enforce a moratorium on new coalmines and ultimately transcend the carbon-fuelled growth economy.

A coal moratorium should be supported by a strong carbon tax that seeks to internalise the huge externalities that flow from the burning of fossil fuels. A recent report by the IMF concludes that currently the fossil fuel industry is being subsidised by $10 million per minute. That’s not a typo; that’s a scandal.

By abolishing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and creating a carbon tax, renewable energy will become more price competitive, thereby sparking the energy revolution we so desperately need. (Note, rich nations also need to consume much less energy not just “green” supply – but that’s another story.)

Embrace the radical implications of living in an age of limits

If democracy is fixed, we, the people, will be able to shape the future. If we adopt alternative indicators to progress, we’ll see that there is more to life than growth. If we contract our military spending we’ll feel secure exploring a post-growth economy, and if we transition beyond fossil fuels we’ll have a post-growth economy.

These are the foundations of a genuine sustainable development, but obviously, even after achieving these bold goals, the task of building the new world would have only just begun.

Let us abolish third world debt – it is shameful to hold the poorest nations down while the rich world extracts their resources for our own overconsumption. Abolishing such debts can go some way to paying off the ecological debt we owe them.

Let us recognise that a post-carbon world is a highly localised world, where we must embrace a bioregional economy that meets mostly local needs using mostly local resources.

Let us re-imagine the good life beyond consumerism. It would be environmentally catastrophic to universalise affluence via sustained economic growth. We need a new vision of human flourishing based on sufficiency.

Let us recognise that these necessary steps toward sustainable development imply a post-capitalist politics and economics, which will require (among other things) new banking and finance systems, new property systems to ensure access to affordable land and housing, a whole host of other structural and cultural transformations, and perhaps most importantly, a redistribution of wealth and power.

Although our governments have much to be ashamed of, we should also recognise that the failures of democracy have been nourished in the developed world by apathetic citizenries, overly focused on their own material advancement. In this sense it could be said that we are the crisis of capitalism. Only by mobilising ourselves for collective action and building the new world from within the shell of the old can there be any hope for a better world.

As Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying: “We cannot solve our problems with the same kinds of thinking that caused them.” Unfortunately, by championing sustained economic growth as the path to sustainable development, the United Nations is committing precisely this error, mistaking the poison for the cure.

To put it proverbially, if we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.

Only degrowth can be a credible answer to Europe’s current refugee situation

Originally posted on

Written by Dennis Eversberg

Tens of thousands are currently coming to Europe, hoping for a better future. They are fleeing from war, violence, political persecution and utter despair, and their hope for a better life lets them endure experiences of dire poverty, exclusion, rejection, police repression and much more on their way here. At the same time, many degrowth activists participate in numerous projects and spontaneous efforts to help and support the refugees in the communities that they end up in.  They donate and distribute food, clothing, sanitary supplies and other things, offer language courses or help people cope with bureaucracy. However, most of them do not consider this kind of activism to be directly connected to or even part of their commitment to degrowth. I want to argue that, in fact, it is. And what’s more: I think that the current refugee situation in Europe is not just – as many are saying – a crucial challenge for “Europe“ as a political project. It may even prove to be the very moment where it becomes obvious that Europe’s (and North America’s) imperial mode of living needs to come to an end.

Europe ends at the highway

In order for the grand historical significance of such events to reach our consciousness, it normally takes particularly iconic incidents or places that engender the tendency they stand for in concentrated form. Currently, Calais probably is such an iconic place. This port city in Northern France, continental bridgehead of the tunnel that links Great Britain to the mainland, has long been the penultimate destination for hundreds, even thousands of people who had to flee from their home countries and chose, for some reason or other, to settle down in the UK. As we’ve read in the papers and seen on the news, they try to jump onto trains, climb on trucks or sneak onto ferries to make the final journey – and in the meantime, they have found a temporary ‘home’ in a camp on a strip of wasteland at the edge of town, locally called “Le Jungle“. Let me give a brief account of what I witnessed there during a recent short visit to the place.

What it’s like

The „Jungle“ is not the first such camp here – earlier versions in and around Calais have been closed down and evicted by French authorities – but by far the largest. It has grown to a size of several thousand people – estimated range from 3.000 to 8.000 – and an end is not in sight. At this size, the “Jungle“ is easily the biggest slum on European soil. Yes, a slum is what it is – there really is no better word. About half its inhabitants live in tents (most of them provided by charities or volunteers), the other half in huts, built from whatever is at hand and proudly called “houses“. From downtown Calais or the train station, it is about an hour’s walk to get there, passing the ferry terminal, now surrounded by five-metre-high, razor-wired, anti-climb fencing and heavily guarded by police, and then a large industrial zone, noisy a day and barely lit at night. The closer you get, the more people you meet on the street, walking to and from, talking mostly Arabic among them and heartily greeting any stranger of European looks in English. The last thing you pass before entering the camp is a chemical plant, stinking like hell, to your right. The first tents stand below an underpass under the highway that leads to the ferryport of Calais. This highway is where Europe ends.

Beyond the highway, there’s tents, huts, a growing number of shops and restaurants people have set up in those huts, a trailer with activist medics providing medical assistance, a Médecins du Monde base that looks as if it’s been copied and pasted from any Sudanese or Iraqi refugee camp, a library hut, a makeshift school, even a hand-built church – and there’s mud. A whole lot of mud.

Of course, there’s also people here. The first thing you notice is that almost all of them are men. If you come after dark, you could think there were no women at all. That’s not true, but they seem to have good reasons not to be outside at this time. During the day, I estimated they might make up about 10% of people in the camp – children are almost nonexistent. Many families seem to have left and moved to other, smaller camps in the vicinity, where conditions are not quite as adverse as here. Not surprisingly, the most important other social category according to which people sort each other is country of origin: There’s an Afghan neighbourhood, a Sudanese one, an Eritrean and Ethiopian quarter (right next to the church), and a Syrian bit. The most common language of exchange is Arabic, whereas English is used for communication with volunteers and other non-refugees.

Abandoned by the state

The one thing that is not present there is a state. Whatever infrastructure and services is available inside the camp (except perhaps for the water supply) is provided by charities and informally networked grassroots volunteers. The police maintain a visible presence at the exit of the highway just outside the camp, day and night, and sporadically attack people in its vicinity, but they do not normally intrude. To almost all practical intents and purposes, the camp is an extraterritorial entity within France. And that’s not because people fought for their independence from the state, but because they were abandoned by it. The evident truth here is: The state just doesn’t care. That’s not intended as a complaint, it’s just stating a fact. Startling as it is to fundamentally state-minded Europeans, the absence of state authority is also exactly what opens up a space of possibilities here: The “Jungle“ is one of those cracks and fissures in European normalcy within which alternatives become imaginable.

What it means

Of course, it’s almost impossible to utter this kind of thing publicly in Europe without immediately getting shouted at, along the lines of “You’re romanticizing poverty“, “You’re downplaying the violent nature of relations among people in the camp“, or even, “Oh, so you want all of Europe to live like that, do you?“. Well, no. Nobody wants to live like that, and ironically, all those people are here because they don’t. But it’s the poverty and the violence that they want to escape, not the mutual relations between humans that are more present here than almost anywhere in Europe. Living in societies that alienate and isolate people from each other and incentivize competition and ruthlessness while disregarding compassion, Europeans only seem to be able to imagine the poor and wretched as raw, selfish, “uncivilised“ barbarians – but they’re not, because most of them do not come from that sort of society. The impression you get as an outsider is that people in the camp, hopeless as they are, are incredibly kind and gentle, much more open and even more ready to share what little they have than the majority of Europeans can even begin to imagine. No need to romanticize: There surely is violence, there are conflicts and people holding all sorts of deeply problematic beliefs – but the overall incredible peacefulness of this huge ‘lawless’ space demonstrates that people manage to find ways to deal with these things and with each other without resorting to ever more violence. Nothing about it is perfect, but imagine you left five thousand randomly selected, overwhelmingly male Europeans to themselves in dire conditions like that: Chances are people would be at each other’s throats within days. Here, in stark contrast, the amount of violence visible in the public realm – is incredibly low.

No one rules this place

What I witnessed during this day and a half in Calais was the closest I’ve seen to anarchy, in the full, literal sense of the word: No one rules this place. And this should not come as much of a surprise. After all, most people who live here are perfectly used to such situations. Coming from places where a ‘functioning’ state, capable of effectively structuring everyday life and enforcing the rules expressed in its laws on a quotidian basis, never existed, or ceased to exist years ago, many have spent most of their lives caring for their own affairs and coordinating them with those in their immediate surroundings. And once they had arrived here, they went about doing just that, because it was perfectly normal for them.

As an actual anarchic social setting, the “Jungle“ is pretty much a natural environment for anarchists – and in fact, anarchist activists, mostly from Britain, do seem to play a key role among those volunteers that are actually present on the ground.

And there’s another thing that ought to be said about life in the “Jungle“: Compared to European standards, people there get by on incredibly little. The only source of electrical power are a dozen or so fuel generators that provide electricity for light, music and a chance to recharge phone batteries at some of the larger, publicly accessible huts. That amount could just as easily be generated by solar panels or a single windmill. The same goes for food, clothing, infrastructure – people here are hardly a source of “demand“ at all in the economic sense, since they live almost entirely on what others have in excess of their own needs and are willing to freely share with them. Dire as it is: The ecological footprint of each person in the camp is practically negligible in comparison to that of a typical Western European citizen. And don’t go shouting “There you go again, romanticizing poverty“: No one suggested everyone should now go and live in unlit, unheated huts in a muddy dump. Neither should any of these people have to do that. These are thoroughly degrading circumstances, no doubt. We cry out at these conditions because they violate our understanding of basic human dignity, which, to European minds, is the cornerstone of all other human rights. In this sense, these refugees are more European than many people in France, Britain or Germany: They came here to regain their dignity, and it’s only because of the European fixation on material things that so many people here can’t see that dignity is not a question of owning a house, a car and going on holiday twice a year.

What it implies

People flee from their home countries to save their lives. They continue on to Europe because, as humans, they cannot exist without the hope for a better future and, most crucially, without dignity. Hope and dignity cannot be measured in Euros, square meters, horsepowers. Nor, for that matter, can they be measured in tons of CO2 emitted. Their one measure is equality. I have a feeling that the experience of the “Jungle“ forces us to see one thing that sits uneasily with some beliefs us leftists tend to hold: It’s not just the wealth that attracts people from other parts of the world, it’s the European promises of freedom and equality – and the fact that they are not just cherished values but actually have some purchase on the way things work around here. Sure, they are by no means a reality – that’s more obvious in Calais than anywhere else –, but they are a promise that governments can only openly betray at a price. For most refugees, Europe is a promised land not because they want to drive fast cars, but for the appeal arising from the fact that its traditions of thought are built on the promise of accepting all humans as in principle equal. Only here do they see the chance of overcoming the status of outsiders, only tolerated at the fringes of society, and finding recognition as human subjects.

„Dignity, freedom are not granted by wealth, but in fact, nowadays, infringed by it“

In fact, Europe will have to learn from them. The one thing European societies desperately need to learn is that the recognition people are hoping to find here is not identical to material status, and that, in order to solve the global equality problem that is behind all this in the long term, Europeans themselves must change. They must stop equating the two and take the encounter with those fleeing here as a chance to learn anew that equality, dignity, freedom are not granted by wealth, but in fact, nowadays, infringed by it. And if we just turn the perspective around for a short moment: It might be an enormous unhoped-for opportunity, having to come to common terms with people used to living with much less and hoping for something more that is by no means just material.

One doesn’t need to be a friend of the EU to see that Europe, as an historically grown civilization and a common political project, is today facing a dilemma, the two sides of which are closely tied to the dialectic of Aufklärung. Recent European history has seen the emergence of some of the most free and equal social orders ever, and the tradition of enlightened thought compels European societies to acknowledge the general validity of a universalist principle of equality (as the core postulate of modern European self-understanding since the French Revolution’s “Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen“). At the same time, the scientific and economic potentials released by enlightened civilization have not only brought about the greatest atrocities in the history of humankind, but also spurred the emergence, in Europe and its early colonial cultural spinoffs, of a mode of living that is fundamentally dependent on permanent and permanently increasing overuse of limited planetary resources and sinks, at a level that makes it categorically impossible to even think about solving the problem of global social inequality by making it accessible to every one of the seven to nine billion people inhabiting the planet in the 21st century.

This dilemma is what those seeking refuge in Europe are confronting our societies with: The universalist and emancipatory political heritage at the heart of European modernity dictates that Europeans – people as well as governments – acknowledge their right to pursue happiness and a better life among us. Meanwhile, the knowledge that European lifestyles cannot be made available to everyone logically implies that people will have to be repelled at Europe’s borders and sent back to poverty and war – lest we accept that it is our own societies that cannot go on with business as usual. If Europe opts to stick with its political traditions, migratory movements will probably go on indefinitely, possibly leading to social destabilisation and change by disaster. On the other hand, to opt for defending its lifestyle would mean resorting to unprecedented violence and revoking all emancipatory achievements of European modernity.

“The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that modernity itself is in need of revision“

The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that this modernity itself is in need of revision: Together with those that come here to live with us, and drawing on their capabilities of self-rule and autonomous living just as well as on Europe’s tradition of universalism, we need to transform the expansive modernity of the last two centuries into a ‘reductive modernity’ (Harald Welzer). This might not end up being as cozy individually as some might like it. But it will have the great advantage of being able to accommodate everyone, and in that it will be a truly European idea. Only when this is achieved will Europe have proved able to live up to its own standards.

This, however, really requires one thing: that European societies democratise. And this is not meant in the sense of having majority decisions on anything and everything that will be enforced with the power of the state. In fact, it’s about a democracy that involves people abandoning all means of forcing others to go along, in favor of actually talking to each other, arguing about the best way, and eventually settling for things that will provide for everyone’s needs. So, in the very end, to take it back to the “Jungle“: The thing is not that Europe should expand beyond the highway, but that Europe can only really live up to its promises if it becomes more like the space beyond it.

Truth takes a hit in the battle over U.S. oil export ban

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

They say that the first casualty of war is truth. And, on both sides of the fight over lifting the ban on exports of U.S. crude oil, the truth has already fallen into a coma. The ban was instituted in 1975 in order to make America less subject to swings in international oil supply after suffering the price shock associated with the Arab oil embargo in 1973.

Last week a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end the ban after a Senate committee voted in July to do the same. A vote by the full House and Senate could be near.

The proponents are careful NOT to say that the United States is energy-independent and so has oil to spare. Such claims made in the past backfired because it is too easy to look this up. Net U.S. imports of crude oil were almost 7 million barrels per day (mbpd) in the week ending September 4. That's out of about 15.6 mbpd of liquid fuels consumed domestically.*

Yet, it is this state of affairs that the proponents of lifting the export ban label as "abundance." Here's the relevant quote from the website of the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance (DEPA), a consortium of U.S. oil drillers: "Thanks to the genius of America's independent oil and natural gas producers, the world is moving from a concept of 'resource scarcity' toward 'resource abundance.'" (So, the world is not moving toward actual abundance, just the concept of abundance. But, I'm nitpicking.)

In another piece entitled "From Scarcity To Abundance: Why The Strategic Petroleum Reserve Is Unnecessary" the group is more bold, saying that the supposed "abundance" is right here in the United States:

US crude oil production has nearly doubled since 2008, rising from 5.0 million barrels per day (MMB/D) to 9.5 MMB/D today. These domestic supply gains are a direct result of technological breakthroughs in horizontal drilling and advanced well completion techniques. Over the same period, improved energy efficiency has reduced US demand growth. These combined factors have fueled a paradigm shift in our country from energy “scarcity” to energy “abundance.” (my emphasis)

The site also includes a graph deceptively labeled "U.S. Crude Oil Production Potential" showing what looks like a rise in production to 20 mbpd by 2025. DEPA can always claim that that graph just represents estimates by its backers. The graph, however, stands in stark contrast to the latest "Short-Term Energy Outlook" just released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Even the ever-optimistic EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will fall next year by 400,000 barrels per day to 8.8 mbpd. In fact, its figures show that crude production actually already began its decline in April. Of course, this decline is partly a response to low oil prices as U.S. oil companies have dramatically reduced their drilling from 1,592 active rigs one year ago to 652 for the week ending September 11.

The central declaration on the DEPA site is as follows:

We must allow crude oil exports to develop America's resource potential. Developing America's resources decreases our dependence on foreign oil.

This comes even as we are told that U.S. oil production has nearly doubled since 2008 WITHOUT lifting the export ban. So, if sentence one has no basis, then it has no bearing on sentence two.

Now, if 1) the United States doesn't produce more oil than it needs, but rather remains the world's largest importer next to China and 2) the export ban didn't prevent domestic production from doubling, then what is the push to end the export ban all about? In a word, money.

There is not enough U.S. refining capacity for all the so-called light tight oil produced from U.S. deep shale formations which have been the mainstay for domestic oil production growth. That means that refineries that can use this type of oil are paying less (because of the excess supply) than they would if foreign refineries could also bid on the oil--which, of course, they can't because of the export ban.

Lifting the export ban would allow domestic oil producers of light tight oil to sell their output to foreign refineries at a higher price than they currently get from domestic refineries. But given the now ongoing decline in U.S. oil production, selling that oil to foreign refineries would mean that the United States would have to import more of other heavier oils (for which we have adequate refinery capacity) to make up for the light oil that is exiting the country. Thus, the United States would become MORE dependent on foreign oil if we lift the export ban.

The oil companies make the case that their product is discriminated against. Agricultural products, manufactured goods and even coal face no export restrictions. Why should oil be singled out?

There is debate about whether allowing essentially a "swap" of U.S. light oil for heavier foreign oil would raise the price of petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil and jet fuel in the United States.

What this move would surely do is force more U.S. refiners to pay higher prices for their oil inputs since they would have to compete against bidders across the globe.

The opponents of lifting the ban, not surprisingly, include U.S. refiners. Also included are consumer groups and petrochemical firms, firms which use oil as their feedstock.

These poorly funded opponents claim that lifting the ban would squander America's chance to be energy-independent. But given the yawning gap between the petroleum products it consumes and the oil the country is able to produce, it is highly unlikely that the United States will ever become energy-independent.

(It is important to note that the United States has long been self-sufficient in coal, and so far this year has imported only about 10 percent of its natural gas needs, almost all of it from Canada, our longtime major supplier. So, energy independence is really a codeword for oil independence. No mention is generally made of trying to become energy-independent by actually REDUCING energy use through conservation and efficiency--though there is occasional lip service given to the idea of reducing the GROWTH in energy demand.)

Whether the U.S. Congress will vote to lift the export ban just as members are about to go into an election year is an open question. But even if the Republican-controlled Congress does lift the ban, it's not clear President Obama will go along with the bill. Last year the administration did widen the definition of what is permissible to exportbeyond refined products which have long been legal to export. The administration moved to include condensate which is essentially ultra-light oil that starts as a gas under the tremendous pressures inside oil reservoirs and then condenses to a liquid once it reaches the wellhead.

But so far administration officials such as Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz have sidestepped the issue. It would make political sense for President Obama to veto any bill lifting the ban to rally traditional Democratic groups such as labor and environmentalists for next year's elections.

But, if the ban is lifted and that results in higher fuel prices for Americans, it might be a good thing in the eyes of those who want Americans to use less oil and to adopt renewable alternatives. Those renewables would, of course, become more competitive as a result of higher oil prices.

But until the country figures out how to get along without the millions of barrels of oil it imports each day, oil exports will only increase our dependence on foreign oil--which will have to be shipped in to replace the oil that would now be exported. This might lead to increased efficiencies in the oil industry as each type of crude would more easily reach the refineries best suited to refine it. But it's hard to see how oil exports would make the United States more energy secure.

And, that was the reason behind banning oil exports in the first place.

Earth as a Petri Dish: The Problem of Growth

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander

The 1972 publication of Limits to Growth sparked a controversy that has yet to subside. This book argued that if population, resource use, and pollution kept growing on our finite planet, eventually economies would face environmental ‘limits to growth’ – with potentially dire consequences. 

Despite the evidence mounting in support of this position, any suggestion that we might have to give up economic growth, or even embrace a degrowth process of planned economic contraction, is typically met with fierce resistance – especially by economists. 

Last week I was invited into the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne to defend this radical ‘degrowth’ perspective. I felt like I had been lured into the lion’s den, and was at risk of being eaten alive. But I made it out unscathed to tell my tale, and would like to report on my findings. 

As I entered the lion’s den my aim was not so much to convince the Faculty of my view but to ‘deconstruct the debate’, so to speak, in the hope of facilitating a discussion about the areas of disagreement in a fruitful and hopefully non-violent manner. 

After considering the objections to degrowth, here’s my summary view of why this ‘limits to growth’ position remains controversial – and why, in the end, the economists that dismiss this perspective are wrong. 

What is growth? 

If someone is to be for or against ‘growth’ it is important to know what that term means, so in the interests of rigour and clear thinking let’s begin with some definitions. There are four primary ways to understand growth. 

First, growth can mean an increase in the energy and resource demands of an economy. This is often called ‘extensive’ or ‘quantitative’ growth. This form of growth represents an increase in the quantity of inputs into the economy (e.g. labour, resources, energy, etc.) in order to increase the quantity of the outputs.

Secondly, growth can also mean using the same resource inputs but doing more with them. This is often called ‘intensive’ or ‘qualitative’ growth. This form of growth occurs when the same resource inputs are used more efficiently, through better skills, technology, or design. This can be understood as increased productivity per unit of input. 

Thirdly, growth can refer to increases in Gross Domestic Product (or GDP). GDP is a macroeconomic accounting system that measures the overall market value of all the goods and services a country produces over a given period. This is perhaps the dominant understanding of growth. When most people think of a growing economy, or when our politicians talk of growth, or when growth is mentioned on the news every night, it is almost always in terms of growth in GDP.

Finally, growth can sometimes be used to refer to state of progress where societal wellbeing or overall utility is increased. 

These are all legitimate ways to understand the notion of growth but they are not synonymous. One form of growth may or may not lead to another form of growth; some forms of growth may have limits, others may not. Fuzzy thinking about these four types of growth has produced unnecessary disagreement. 

Where, then, does the ‘limits to growth’ controversy lie?

Deconstructing the debate

Nobody is against growth in wellbeing, so we can leave that to one side. Furthermore, even economists tend to accept that an economy cannot grow quantitatively without limit on a finite planet. 

The real controversy over the ‘limits to growth’ perspective lies in relation to the concepts of GDP and qualitative growth. Defenders of growth argue that there is no reason why we cannot ‘decouple’ GDP growth from environmental impact in such a way that avoids any perceived limits to growth. 

These growth advocates might acknowledge that current forms of GDP growth are not sustainable, but nevertheless argue that what we need is ‘green growth’; that is, growth based in qualitative improvement not quantitative expansion. 

This view is based in economic theory. It argues that if natural resources begin to get scarce, prices will go up, and this will set in motion two important dynamics. First of all, increased prices will dis-incentivise consumption of that resource and encourage alternatives or substitution, thus reducing demand of the scarce resource. 

Secondly, increased prices would incentivise the development of new technologies, new markets, or new substitutes, which will increase the production of the scarce resource and lead to its more efficient use. 

Furthermore, when markets are working properly and all the costs of production are ‘internalised’, the prices that result will mean people will only ever consume natural resources or pollute the environment to an ‘optimal’ degree. The ‘invisible hand’ will ensure that utility is maximised. 

For all these reasons, modern economists tend to argue that human economic activity will never face limits to growth. Those silly ‘limits to growth’ theorists just don’t understand economics. Growth is good, and more growth is better!

This is the mainstream economic justification underpinning calls for ‘sustained growth’ as the path to sustainable development. In short: all nations on the planet should continue to pursue growth in GDP, while aiming to ‘decouple’ that growth from environmental impact. 

Coherent in theory, flawed in practice

I am prepared to accept (for present purposes) that these economic arguments for why there are no limits to growth are coherent in theory. And because they are coherent enough in theory, many people are persuaded by them, making the limits to growth perspective seem controversial or just false. Nevertheless, the attempts to avoid limits to growth are demonstrably flawed when applied in practice. 

Tim Jackson, for example, has shown that if the developed nations grew GDP by 2% over coming decades and by 2050 the global population had achieved a similar standard of living, the global economy would be 15 times larger than it is today. If it grew at 3% from then on it would be 30 times larger than the current economy by 2073, and 60 times larger before the end of this century.

Given that the global economy is already in gross ecological overshoot, just imagine the environmental burdens of a global economy fifteen, thirty, or sixty times bigger than today. What makes this growth trajectory all the more terrifying is that if we asked politicians whether they’d prefer 4% growth to 3%, they’d all say yes, and the exponential growth scenario just described would become even more absurd. It seems too much growth is never enough. 

Here we see the fatal flaw at the heart of growth economics: the apparent failure to understand the exponential function. By all means, let’s do our very best to decouple GDP from environmental impact – that’s absolutely necessary. But let’s think through the very basic arithmetic of growth and recognise that compound growth quickly renders the growth model a recipe for ecological and thus humanitarian disaster. 

In short, the main problem with the growth model is that it relies on an extent of ‘decoupling’ that quickly becomes unachievable. Granted, we might be able to produce food more efficiently than we do today, but we cannot eat recipes! 

To make matters worse, recent evidence has debunked the widespread myth that the developed nations are already in the process of achieving significant decoupling. It turns out that what we’ve mainly been doing is out-sourcing our energy and resource intensive manufacturing and ‘recoupling’ it elsewhere, especially in China. So much for green growth. We’re just cooking the books. 

As I have argued elsewhere, continued growth in GDP is also incompatible with the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change. 

Earth as a Petri dish

I think everyone who casually dismisses the limits to growth perspective should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria and watch as the colony grows until it consumes all the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste. 

In that light, I ask you to imagine a world of seven billion people, trending towards eleven billion people, all aspiring to the Western way of life, on our one and only planet, and consider for a moment whether the first limits to growth theorist, Thomas Malthus, who is often ridiculed, may yet have the last, tragic laugh. 

From a distance, I think Earth would look very much like that Petri dish I just mentioned.