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.

Raven Rocks and Fracking

Originally posted on

Written by Susan Jennings

Energy is threaded throughout the history of Raven Rocks, a community in southeastern Ohio near the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Nineteen friends, including Rich Sidwell and John Morgan, founded Raven Rocks in 1970 to protect 850 acres of Appalachian forest and ravines from strip mining. The purchase and reclamation of the land demonstrated the same mindfulness and tenacity that are now thrusting members of the community into a national debate about fossil fuel depletion and fracking. 

Raven Rocks is 15 miles from Barnesville, a town of 4,200 people, 20 percent of whom are below the poverty line. Barnesville is an historic coal town with poor soils and few industries. It’s also home to Olney Friends School. Founded in 1837, the school aims to “provoke questions of conscience, and nurture skills for living in community.” So when a group of former students, faculty, and their spouses learned that the Raven Rocks property might be sold for strip mining, they formed a corporation to buy the land. At that time, 80 percent of the county land had been leased or sold to stripping operations. But Raven Rocks, with its stunning outcroppings, ravines, and forest, held a special place for the group and generations of area residents. A sacred site to Native Americans, the ravines in later times attracted walkers, picnicking families, and Olney students on camping or study trips. 

The previous owner of the Raven Rocks property had planted some 45,000 Christmas trees a few years before deciding to sell the property. The Olney group borrowed money and started to reclaim the land and tend the Christmas trees to pay for it. Early on, they lived elsewhere, working on evenings and weekends as their lives allowed. Over the years many of the group began to reclaim and build houses on the property, start businesses and families, and make acquaintance with the broader community. Today eight-plus people live on and care for the 1250 acre Raven Rocks Property, most of which is in a conservation easement. 

Although their purchase of Raven Rocks protected it from strip mining, the community did not own all the mineral rights. The Pittsburgh #8 coal seam was sold off by previous landowners early in the 20th century, and bought early in the 21st by Murray Energy Corporation. By then, “longwall mining” had been introduced in Ohio. Longwall is a form of underground mining where large blocks of coal a few miles long and several hundred yards wide are completely removed. And, as in removing a layer from the middle of a cake, so the overburden of soil and rock from land that’s been mined can subside or cave into the breach, causing damage to natural and manmade structures at the surface. 

Sidwell says: “We wouldn’t take Murray to court and tell them they couldn’t mine the seam, but we asked them what would happen if you subside the cliffs at Raven Rocks, and they said ‘we don’t know.’ Over a period of months we visited with senior officials from the coal company and the senior officials visited the owner. The owner grew up and courted his wife at Raven Rocks and the net result of all the meetings was that he made this huge publicity thing saying ‘we’re not going to mine under Raven Rocks, we’re giving up millions of dollars of coal to save it.’

“John Morgan printed a large photo of Raven Rocks, thanking the owner and company for the consideration. It got good publicity, and we’ve always had good relations with all of the people from the mine, even though we knew coal wasn’t the future.”

Sidwell continues: “We know we’re part of the problem because we have coal-generated electricity. We’re working to do things a different way. We weren’t saying they were evil for being in the coal business. It was cordial and we still have good relations with the business.”

This willingness to see energy issues systemically sets the Raven Rocks community apart from the start. Cited by newspapers as “a renewable energy technology, environmental education, and ecological preservation laboratory,” the community has been experimenting with renewable energies, sustainable building techniques, and land restoration. They live in earth-sheltered or retrofitted homes, give preference to walking and bicycle riding over the automobile, and continue to nurture the land through organic gardening and reforestation. 

Raven Rocks and Barnesville lie over the Marcellus and Utica shales, organic-rich shale deposited almost 400 million years ago. Lauded for its contribution to America’s “energy independence,” shale gas is now being tapped in several states through hydraulic fracturing, a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped underground to crack shale, and free oil and gas trapped within it.

While several countries, communities, and states have banned fracking, others are welcoming it for the unexpected money and jobs shale gas seems to be inviting into previously impoverished areas. Sidwell says: “Shale gas is new but the companies involved moved swiftly and leased about 80-90 percent of the county. Under cloud cover, the town just roars at night.”

New roads, fracking pads, pipelines, and trucks carrying water and waste now crisscross the area. Like other communities affected by the boom, Barnesville faces a number of potential issues, including earthquakes, stress on roads and other infrastructure, and a drain on water resources. Fracking shale gas wells in Ohio consume an average of six million gallons of water per well.

In addition to the fracking wells, Barnesville and other Ohio communities are also contending with an influx of injection waste wells. Much of the fracking waste generated in neighboring states is being trucked to Ohio for disposal because of the state’s lack of regulation. In the winter of 2014, Lea Harper, founder of the Freshwater Accountability Project Ohio, challenged the legality of Ohio’s permits, including the permitting of a waste site next to Barnesville. She sought a local resident to serve as a legal plaintiff in a suit against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. John Morgan from Raven Rocks volunteered. 

A researcher and writer used to drawn-out processes both by disposition and also through the Raven Rocks community experience, Morgan started to investigate both the fracking and the waste wells. Over the past two years he’s researched the environmental and legal issues, attended hearings, written letters to the editor, called politicians, and been instrumental in the formation of CBAR, Concerned Barnesville Area Residents, along with Jill Hunkler, who says of Morgan: “More than anybody I know, he’s walking the talk—meaning he’s not only fighting the fights and making a stance against the disposal of waste, but he’s also living very frugally off the land, growing his own food. He doesn’t go anywhere unless there’s a good reason.” Sidwell says that no one in Barnesville really knew John before the fracking controversy. But in the past few years he’s been featured in newspaper, radio, and television articles about Barnesville and fracking.

Harper’s lawsuit failed. The court ruled that Morgan and the others had no standing because they couldn’t prove that residents had been harmed or were in imminent danger of being harmed. Morgan says: “The Supreme Court has made it harder and harder for citizens to achieve ‘standing’ in environmental cases.”

Morgan questions the efficacy of the legal approach in environmental cases where the legal process is increasingly stacked in favor of industry. There may also be a tendency for people to stop being active politically once there is a lawsuit in play, assuming that the courts will settle the matter. Instead, he says, citizen activism is a crucial component of change agency. CBAR, for example, was able to stop the proposed waste facility near Barnesville by placing ads in the local paper and conducting a petition drive that convinced the company to withdraw their application rather than risk the Belmont County Port Authority voting the project down. 

CBAR continues to try to mediate the community fracking conversation. Sidwell notes that the group keeps kicking themselves and their local officials asking “Why didn’t we do this two years ago when leasing happened? We can’t go back, but we’re looking at what we can do to protect the resources and the health of community and citizens now, and what we can share with others.”

Sidwell is in a position to do a lot. Over the years since the formation of Raven Rocks, he’s held several positions at Olney, the last one as Head of School. In that position, and in his current position as chair of the Captina Conservancy land trust, he and other members of the Raven Rocks community have been able to save thousands of acres from being fracked. It’s a key model for Barnesville residents. 

Hunkler, a cofounder of CBAR and one of the few community holdouts to fracking leases, says that Morgan presented evidence of water contamination risks from fracking to the Olney Friends School and to Ohio Yearly Meeting, which owned several hundred acres of land. None of the parcels were leased.

She notes that the community of Raven Rocks has been a shining light: “Raven Rocks knew all along that they wouldn’t lease. They’ve turned down millions of dollars and have not leased.”

Sidwell says of drilling that “everybody has leased and everyone is surprised that we’ve passed up the money. They can’t comprehend. If you had a chance to win the lottery why wouldn’t you? Of course now that it’s starting to happen a number of people are unhappy.”

But the Raven Rocks’ community experience has mediated how the group deals with the fracking companies as well as their neighbors who have leased.

“One of the questions that has come up in CBAR is how can we be effective, and I brought up the negotiations we had with the coal companies as an example of a way to work with the companies and the politicians.”

There are several open questions. Barnesville is currently being sued by a fracking company over the fact that the town sold water rights to two different companies and may not have enough for either. And Hunkler and other holdouts are getting hemmed in and may lose their land without leasing it. But there are bright spots, including the community that has been built through the process. CBAR is now looking at the development of a Community Rights Bill that lifts environmental and community rights over corporate rights—a model that’s been adopted in several Ohio communities.

Through all the work happening in Barnesville, Raven Rocks’ residents are playing a pivotal role. Sidwell says: “Early on people would ask us if we were an intentional community and we said yes and no. Eventually we said that we were a community of purpose; we got together to do things that we cared about."

Laird Schaub, Executive Secretary of FIC, says that “intentional communities are important to the wider culture not just as alternatives to a mainstream lifestyle that is materialistic and unsustainable, but because they are pioneering the day-to-day skills needed to create and sustain cooperative culture, the learnings from which can be exported to neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces—any place where people hunger to move away from the alienation and disconnection of hierarchy and adversarial dynamics.” At a time when we have surpassed the limits to growth, and discussions about community resources are becoming increasingly fractious, communities like Raven Rocks are likely to continue to serve leadership roles. 

Stock market confessions, chaos, complexity and the illusion of control

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

In the old days of the Chinese Cultural Revolution those who said or did something perceived by the Chinese authorities to be counter-revolutionary were forced into public confessions--and then humiliated, imprisoned or even put to death.

It seems that old ways die hard. Last week the new China--the one that had thrown off the yoke of the Cultural Revolution--televised forced confessions by people who had dared to say that the Chinese stock market may not be a great place to put your money these days.

In addition, Chinese government officials are cracking down on short sellers--those who borrow stock to sell, hoping to buy it back at a lower price. Officials are prohibiting large holders of stock from selling for six months, and they are flooding brokerages with easy credit to encourage those brokerages and their clients to buy stocks with borrowed money. Who would have guessed that still nominally communist China would go to such great lengths to protect the most prominent symbol of out-of-control capitalism, a stock market bubble?

It seems that the government has forgotten the essence of a marketplace of stocks, namely, that for every buyer there must a seller. When those wishing to sell shares are denied the opportunity, they are likely to become increasingly doubtful that the denial is for their own good. The whole point of a stock market is to lessen the risk of investing in a company by making it possible to sell one's shares at a moment's notice when the need for cash or the opportunity for a better investment arises.

Marketplaces for investments are inherently unstable. The participants react to constantly changing conditions and perceptions. If markets were entirely predictable and transparent, there would be very little money to be made since everyone's perception of the risks they were taking and the rewards they might reap would be identical.

But it is precisely the differences in perceptions (and personal or institutional needs) that create the desire to buy and sell. Unsophisticated individual investors (who make up the bulk of investors in China) were propagandized by the Chinese government to put their savings into the stock market. The government hoped the market would provide a cheap form of finance for Chinese industry.

Elsewhere in the world, we have the brokerage industry to propagandize individual investors with a message designed to convince them that despite its dips and troughs, stock market investing is a one-way street to prosperity. Those who keep buying--the story and the stocks--forget that those who are selling think that the stocks they are selling will go down.

With another swoon in stock prices mercifully interrupted in the United States by the Labor Day weekend, it is a supreme irony that many Americans will be spending their idle time worrying about the kind of wealth that does not come from their own labor. I have no doubt that many of them will be on their computers checking to see how the Shanghai Stock Exchange trades while they are forced to sit helplessly on Monday (a market holiday in the United States) and merely watch.

My father's been asking me why what is happening in the Chinese stock market is of any importance to those outside the country. When the Chinese market started to plummet earlier in the summer, the move seemed to have little effect on markets in the United States and Europe (though attentive investors noticed that emerging stock market shares were also plunging.)

But we learned in the last stock market crash (and in recent weeks) that--to paraphrase the Coca-Cola jingle--the world's financial system sings in perfect harmony. It is a complex, tightly networked system through which signals both benign and malign travel literally at the speed of light through wires and satellites. Those signals come from a world economy more closely connected into one great global system than ever before.

No one can really comprehend this system, and so no one can truly fix it when things go wrong. What is telling is that in the post-Communist age, we are supposed to be celebrating the triumph of the free market as an efficient, self-correcting mechanism that requires minimal oversight. But when that system corrects in ways that we don't like, governments and regulators rush to prevent the correction without really knowing what they are doing.

The complex system of financial markets we've created and then tied all together electronically has become subject to increasingly frequent bouts of chaos that our financial models tell us cannot happen. It now ought to be clear that the mathematical models by which major banks and other financial institutions manage their risks are badly flawed. We get this declaration from none other than the world's most prominent banker, Jamie Dimon, CEO of the banking colossus JPMorgan Chase & Co., who told the world that his models showed that an unusual move in U.S. Treasury bond rates last fall should only occur once every 3 billion years.

Dimon thought he was warning the U.S. government that its new banking regulations were setting the bond market up for a crisis in the future. Maybe so. But he was also unwittingly admitting that those managing our financial system don't have a clue about the risks they are taking (usually with other people's money).

If those who run the financial system don't understand the risks they are taking, why should we listen to their advice concerning our own financial affairs?

As the worldwide stock market bubble deflates, people will increasingly take matters into their own hands. Buy-and-hold strategies will crumble in the face of stinging losses. Investors will come to realize that there is no inherent value in the paper claims on businesses that we call stocks--only the price that other people are willing to pay. It turns out that investing in the stock market is really a financial game of chicken.

Financial analysts and advisors will defend themselves by saying, "No one could have seen it coming." And according to their models, financial crashes of the type we experienced in 2008 are so rare that they are unlikely to occur anytime during the life of the planet.

The illusion that we can control the world financial system is just one more illusion we share in an increasingly unstable world. Once that illusion is shattered, we will have to rethink carefully our assumptions about our lives, financial and otherwise.

Anxiety turns to fear: Markets, energy, Pan and the Zeitgeist

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

The characteristic feeling of the post-2008 world has been one of anxiety. Occasionally, that anxiety breaks out into fear as it did in the last two weeks when stock markets around the world swooned and middle class and wealthy investors had a sudden visitation from Pan, the god from whose name we get the word "panic." Pan's appearance is yet another reminder that the relative stability of the globe from the end of World War II right up until 2008 is over. We are in uncharted waters.

Here is the crux of the matter as expressed in a piece which I wrote last year:

The relentless, if zigzag, rise in financial markets for the past 150 years has been sustained by cheap fossil fuels and a benign climate. We cannot count on either from here on out....

Another thing we cannot necessarily count on is the remarkable geopolitical stability that the world experienced for two long stretches during the fossil fuel age. The first one lasted from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the beginning of World War I in 1914 (interrupted only by the brief Franco-Prussian War). The second lasted from the end of World War II in 1945 until now.

Following the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, the Middle East has experienced increasing chaos devolving into a civil war in Syria; the rapid success of forces calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which are busily reshaping the borders of those two countries; and now the renewed chaos in Libya. We must add to this the Russian-Ukranian conflict. It is no accident that all of these conflicts are related to oil and natural gas.

As I view the current world landscape, I am reminded of two movies (which I've written about before) that I think capture the Zeitgeist: Melancholia and Take Shelter. In both the protagonists increasingly sense that something is terribly wrong, but can't quite put their finger on it. Everyone around them thinks they are ill or crazy. But for both protagonists, their anxiety comes from an inner vision that stems not from mere psychic disturbances, but rather from alarming real-world circumstances that are about to break into the open.

In a sense, these two characters represent those of us who cannot repress the pervasive anxiety of our times and who seek not merely to alleviate it, but rather to face it--to find out its origins and address its causes.

And here we return to the god Pan, mentioned at the outset. It is fitting that this god of nature--of shepherds, flocks, and wild places--should also in our age be associated with the panic we feel. For it is nature itself which is weighing on our economy in the form of climate change and fossil fuel depletion. As California--the seventh largest economy in the world behind France--burns in the heat of a multi-year drought, the grim consequences of our poor stewardship are becoming apparent. The images of fiery forests and dust-dry fields command our attention.

But hidden from the view of most is the role that increasingly expensive energy has played since the beginning of this century in slowing economic growth. The shorthand way of understanding this is that in the last century we extracted all the easy-to-get fossil fuels. Now we are going after the hard-to-get remainder which are costly to extract. That takes resources away from the energy-consuming part of the economy and creates a drag on economic growth. Hence, a dramatically slower economy in 2015 after four years of record or near record average daily prices for the most critical fossil fuel, oil. (The recent drop in oil prices is primarily a reflection of slowing demand that comes from a slowing economy.)

The financial industry through the media has intervened forcefully during the recent stock market sell-off to tell us all not to panic. These corrections are normal, they say, and long-term investors--that is, virtually everyone except Wall Street--should ignore them. What the industry and the media do not tell us is that these are not normal times.

Circumstances have changed dramatically. The evidence is there if only we have eyes to see it. Interest rates in much of the world are still stuck at or near zero seven years after the last worldwide downturn. How will the world's central banks stimulate the economy after the next inevitable recession? By lowering interests that are already at zero? In the post-World War II paradigm, rates would be at much higher levels today, say four or five percent, and economic growth would be much faster.

Annual world economic growth from 1961 through 2000 according to the World Bank was 3.8 percent per year. From 2000 to 2013, an era of increasingly expensive energy, it slowed to 2.4 percent. From the initial spurt of 4.1 percent growth in 2010 (after a contraction of 2.1 percent in 2009), growth settled down to 2.3 percent in 2012 and 2013, slightly below the recent average. This is despite unprecedented efforts to stimulate the world economy through large increases in government spending and record low interest rates.

And, as mentioned above, the geopolitical stability that has been the backdrop to the pervasive buy-and-hold investment mentality has disappeared. Like the protagonists of Melancholia and Take Shelter, we anxiously await we-know-not-what.

As we do, Pan makes his ever-more-frequent appearances. Franklin Roosevelt is famous for saying: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But fear is a protective mechanism. We are right to fear things that can hurt us and to act accordingly. We cannot solve our problems if we refuse to accept that we have them.

Sometimes Pan is trying to help us by warning us. Sometimes it is possible to hear him playing his flute long before he arrives on the scene. But can we listen and act in some way other than panic?


Designing the Landscapes of Energy Descent

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Peter Bane

The choices we make today will ripple through the economies of the next half-century or longer, so it is important that they be informed by the realities of a world with less available energy and capital. Permaculture, a global movement for grassroots retrofitting of post-industrial societies, anticipated the devolution of energy-intensive systems from the 1970s onward, and has focused on training activists in design thinking, effective teaching, and community organizing skills.

In countries of the Two-Thirds World, the emphasis on creating resources by repairing landscapes and augmenting natural capital with small inputs of information, seed, plants, animals, and appropriate technology was readily grasped as a direct response to problems of poverty, land degradation, and cultural erosion. In rich countries, permaculture found an audience at the margins, in hilly country, among artists, students of the natural world, organic farmers, and other free-thinking types. Living in a nation polluted by wealth and still in thrall to mass production and mass marketing, mainstream US people saw little value in permaculture’s call to recognize limits, until recent years when the illusion of endless prosperity was shattered by war and financial crises. Now that a sense of need has been engendered among millions, it is important to demonstrate solutions on the broad scale. This requires skilled practitioners to step forward and engage in publically prominent actions.

Permaculture’s each-one-teach-one approach to extension has succeeded in the face of limited resources and official neglect, but despite the power of the two-week intensive introductory course, called the permaculture design course, or PDC, to change attitudes, or induce metanoia, many emerge from it without a full suite of skills for effective work. Professionals in the fields of design or landscape management who matriculate can often see how to adopt permaculture thinking to build more capable systems, but many coming to the PDC from apprehension about the environmental crisis — which is also an economic crisis — understand the need for a shift in career, employment, or location, sometimes all three. As the ground shifts beneath them, they can benefit from mentoring by professional designers and facilitators familiar with the terrain of cultural evolution and social change.

Over the past four decades, permaculture designers have implemented striking and impressive innovations, and do this on increasing scales with each passing year. Ecovillages, a worldwide university without walls, municipal scale composting and recycling programs, organic farms, multi-village reforestation projects, credit unions, local currencies, and more have emerged from the initiatives of one or a few individuals. Lately, the global network has contemplated aid projects to the Greek people in their crisis of neo-liberal austerity, directly confronting the depradations of state and multi-state actors. 

Closer to home, our Midwestern industrial regions have felt the impact of globalism’s dislocations longer than many parts of the US. More than three decades into the era of exported jobs and decaying cities, Northeast Ohio has had time to reach to the root and envision locally sourced economic solutions — a direct challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of globalization. A sophisticated urban agriculture is beginning to emerge and provide a new bottom-up basis for prosperity. 

Akron, once tire-maker to the American auto industry, is ready to pull up freeway lanes that have marred its central city for decades. Youngstown has begun to depave and remove utilities from outlying districts that emptied out in the 80s. These cities, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and many others are primed for a revolution in thinking, one that will lead the way for presently more prosperous places to follow. 

Our cities need design for lively districts, pedestrian-friendly streets, mixed use neighborhoods, and urban farms. They need to be surrounded by mixed agriculture, greenbelts of forest reserves (which will be the energy sources of the future), and thriving smaller market towns which can supply produce and other primary goods from the land, a subject on which I have written extensively in The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. Transportation networks based on bicycles, light rail, and bus rapid transit need to be integrated with residential redevelopment to rebalance exchange values with constrained mobility. Urban drainage systems need to be recreated to hold water back in the manner of wetlands, riparian parks, roof gardens, and porous pavement, rather than rush it away as now. The food, habitat, and biomass resources of the urban forest need to grow and be cultivated to provide livelihoods, room for wildlife, and fertility for urban foodsheds. These are urgent matters since infrastructure takes many years to transform, and the legacy of soil and water contamination is heavy.

With the help of colleagues Karryn Olson-Ramanujan of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, Ithaca, and Jono Neiger of Regenerative Design Group in western Massachusetts, I will lead an Advanced Design Course for graduates of the PDC in Akron November 8-13 (www.permacultureactivist/designcourse/). Students will undertake team design projects with significant civic renewal potential throughout the metro area. We will be guided by local professionals and residents with a hand on the region’s pulse, and we will build skills in pattern recognition and language development, system analysis, concept articulation and goal-setting, and presentation. Key sections of the course will emphasize plant palettes, water management and earthworks, community capacity building, entrepreneurship, and professional practice.

As a board member of Community Solutions, I am committed to the regeneration of small community through face-to-face encounter — the answer to our urban challenges is also relocalization — and as a permaculture designer and teacher, my work centers on the building of natural and social capital through small group initiatives. When we come together to deepen these capacities, we create the networks that are essential for new energy descent cultures to emerge from the chaotic conditions of the present epoch. Our world exists in a liminal state today, and all who are alive can feel the unrest. The appropriate response is not fear, however, but action to ground a heightened awareness, and the cultivation of vision from the expanded possibilities of sweeping change. It is possible to prepare for the unknown because the morphology of natural systems and the needs of human beings are universal, imperatives that will become more obvious as the trajectory of economic contraction brings about a levelling of wealth, greater sharing, and a nurturing of common resources. We have an obligation to help these processes to grow and spread.

A Future That Works for All

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Jim Merkel

This film reveals a little know secret:  That a future that works for all is not only possible but actually quite simple and democratic. But the journey to discovering this future requires we crack open three of the most personal and private decisions that any of us make:  How much will I consume, earn or take from the planet’s commons?  How many children will I have? And, How will I share with others? When one in seven struggle on less than $1 per day, clearly some take too much while others need more of what Earth provides.

The filmmakers will gingerly explore two of humanities sacred cows “be fruitful and multiply” and “he or she who dies with the most toys wins.” Together they lead the stampede to wreck the planet and underlie most environmental and social woes.  The viewers are treated to an insider’s glimpse of societies that exhibit sustainable practices, that is, have small families, small ecological footprints and healthy, educated people. 

In 2015 Pope Francis addressed these themes discussing “responsible parenting” and for a “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits” ending an “economy of exclusion” and tweeted “Inequality is the root of social evil.” At the same time Naomi Klein’s bestseller This Changes Everything corners capitalism for its war against life on earth and our climate.

Time is ripe for Jim Merkel to travel with Community Solution’s director Susan Jennings to Kerala, India, Cuba, and Eastern Europe, swinging by China and Vietnam, to glean insights into defusing the population bomb, ending poverty and taking the heat off our planet. In Budapest they will film the 5th International Degrowth Conference and travel to Slovenia to experience family policies that have led to the lowest at-risk-children and gender-pay-gap levels in Europe while having the highest female employment.

Filming their own backyards in the US, they’ll interview those who’ve chosen a low-impact lifestyle having tasted all that modernity has to offer.  Meet a young educated female organic farmer in Maine who left a life of too much to play fiddle and grow vegetables albeit low-income and rural. Next meet a car-free urbanite shopping at thrift stores and farmers markets. 

How do women feel and think about their fertility choices and family size?  What support did they have or wish they had as a young mother? We will learn about their education, views on contraception and family planning and how society adapted to smaller families. What material and spiritual aspirations do they have? What brings meaning and happiness to their lives? What challenges do they face?  Progress in the places we will visit accompanies challenges such as high unemployment, high suicide rates, embargoes, foreign hostilities and domestic lack of democracy.  

The stakes have never been higher for life on earth as-we-know-it. Critical planetary boundaries are being exceeded leading to climate disruption, the beginning of the 6th great extinction, the collapse of fisheries and the expansion of wars.  Most world leaders have no other plan but to grow the economy, stimulate consumer spending, and stimulate couples to have more children--the very things that drive this crisis.

Interviews with the Global Footprint Network highlight how, with seven billion people, up from one billion in 1804, humanity now utilized the planet’s entire annual natural capacity by August 13, 2015, World Overshoot Day.  Currently 1.5 planets are needed to meet humanity’s demands.  Demographers estimate the population will reach 11 billion by 2100 requiring 2.4 planets excluding the needs of the estimated 25 million other species. However, if families shifted toward single-child averages for 100 years, population would retract to between one and two billion.  This scenario with current ecological footprint levels, simply better distributed, 80 percent of the biosphere could again be available for other species – a plan with no losers.  Billions of people have adopted small families. This film’s hope is to provide encouragement for these changes to continue.

Worldwatch Institute estimates that $190 billion annually, just one third of the US military budget and one sixth of the world’s military budget, could tackle poverty and ease environmental destruction. This would provide universal healthcare, education, family planning, preschool assistance, school lunches and support to pregnant women in the 44 poorest countries, AND protect and restore topsoil, crop land, fisheries, fresh water, biodiversity and address climate change. Isn’t it ironic that the security sought by wealthy nations through military expenditures could actually be spent on securing a Future that Works For All?

This unlikely mid-course adjustment has been tested in several countries with impressive results and has a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.  Most poor nations have lowered fertility levels, however, the extra-poor within those countries continue to have large families as a survival strategy related to grinding poverty. The film will show how the poorest win by exiting poverty and gaining education and access to contraception. This compassionate path to lowering global populations will spare massive suffering and ecological destruction while leaving family size as a personal choice.  Those with “too much” win by realizing that happiness is not linked to consumerism and that a Future That Works For All is an ethical and practical path forward -- that by taking less, a desirable common future is possible. 

The Islamic Climate Change Declaration Could Be More Effective Than Pope Francis's Encyclical

Originally posted on

Written by Emma Foehringer Merchant

Pope Francis may have soaked up headlines earlier this summer when he published a whopping 192-page encyclical on climate change, but this week Muslims issued a declaration that could influence an even larger population than the Catholic decree. The declaration, announced Tuesday as part of the two-day International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul, further exemplifies the trend of faith-based climate activism ahead of the U.N. climate change summit in December.

Like the papal encyclical, the Islamic Climate Change Declaration calls for a rejection of human greed for natural resources, respect of nature’s “perfect equilibrium,” and recognition of the “moral obligation” to conserve. More concretely, it hopes to rally the world’s wealthiest and oil-producing countries—several of which are predominantly Muslim—to act as leaders in cutting emissions and helping less affluent governments make the same reductions. Corporations were asked to commit to waste-free business plans and divest from economies driven by traditional fuel sources.

The Muslim legacy of environmentalism has long been overshadowed by Christian-focused environmental stewardship, but the declaration could potentially have a larger reach than its Catholic counterpart. According to an April Pew study, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, with around 1.6 billion followers. By 2050, there will be as many Muslims as there are Christians of all denominations. The global population of Catholics barely tops 1 billion.

Many Muslims also live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, with predicted increases in drought, floods, and other extreme weather events as a result of higher temperatures. In late July, Turkey, where the symposium was held, experienced extreme heat waves. Earlier this month, temperatures in Iraq rocketed so high the government declared a four-day holiday.

Predominantly Muslim countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries with the worst air pollution in the world, according to a 2014 World Health Organization report.  Worst of all was Pakistan, a country that heavily prioritizes economic growth over environmental issues. 

Though Tuesday’s declaration may not have a political impact on countries like Pakistan, faith-based appeals could have resounding effects in public perception and encourage conversation on climate change, as the recent encyclical has.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Islamic philosopher and professor at George Washington University, said that faith has much greater power to reach Muslims than politics. For instance, Egypt and other countries in the Nile basin have attempted to restrict the river's pollution, but it’s unlikely for residents to stop their dumping practices without religious impetus from a local mosque, said Nasr. “Islam is still very powerful in the Islamic world,” he said. “If a priest says, ‘Don’t cut a tree, because it’s a sin,’ it will have much more effect.”

Muslim interest in climate change may only be a few decades old, but environmental stewardship is deeply rooted in Islamic tradition. According to Islamic Relief Worldwide, one of the organizers of the conference, the Qu’ran includes 700 verses that concern the environment and climate. Certain interpretations of the holy text also argue it explicitly decries manmade pollution: “Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea on account of what the hands of men have wrought,” one translation reads. Just last year, Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body declared a fatwa against wildlife trafficking—the first of its kind worldwide. 

Counterintuitive: (Some) Volatility is Good for You, Stability Not So Much

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

With stock markets around the world plunging and commodity prices in free fall, it seems appropriate to return to a theme which I've taken up previously: That a certain amount of volatility is good for humans and the systems they build, and that attempts to stifle the natural and healthy volatility of a system can lead to greater and even catastrophic volatility in the end.

All of this runs counter to the propaganda with which we are regaled on a daily basis. For example, investors are told that the lower the volatility of their portfolios, the lower the risk. But, in 2008 that turned out not to be true. More recently, as volatility in the widely watched S&P 500 settled down to historic lows this year, investors believed that the magic of low volatility was here to stay. Central banks--through their periodic interventions when markets began to fall--had somehow engineered a no-lose situation for investors. It was going to be clear sailing ahead for...well, forever if you listen to Wall Street.

The history of volatility in markets and in life suggests that high volatility lies just around the bend after a prolonged period of low volatility. It is impossible to say what would trigger the kind of crash we saw in 2008. For now, the Chinese stock market crash and recent negative economic news in China and the United States have unnerved many investors. The Chinese stock market is now more than halfway to a 2008-style meltdown. Stocks in Europe and the United States have finally started to fall in earnest after holding up and even advancing in the face of major declines in emerging markets such as Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey. Money rushed from the emerging markets to major developed economies looking for--you guessed it--stability.

In the wake of the 2008 crash central banks and governments were determined to revive economic growth. They didn't care that we had too much manufacturing capacity, too much housing, too many banks, too many brokerages, and too much of many other things as well. That excess had to be taken up by consumers and businesses with access to cheap borrowed funds, funds those groups would spend to revive the economy. Marginal enterprises, overleveraged speculators in real estate, and insolvent banks and brokerages had to be bailed out so they could live to speculate and operate another day. The excesses of the previous bubble would be carried over to the next. Few would be disciplined for their mistakes.

Having had several cycles of this brand of policy starting back with the 1987 crash, marginal parts of the economy--like large overleveraged, overextended money center banks--have been allowed not only to survive, but actually to flourish and engage in ever more risky behavior, confident that authorities would always bail them out if they became insolvent.

The seeming market stability and low volatility engineered by central bank bond buying and zero interest rate policy after the 2008 crash is an illusion. It is very much like the illusion that a quiescent earthquake fault gives to people who live over it. The stress on the unseen fault builds gradually over a long period. Everything is fine until the sudden adjustment comes and the ground starts to shake taking highways, bridges and buildings with it. It's the geological equivalent of a market crash.

But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his coauthor, Gregory Treverton, pointed out earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, these ideas about volatility apply not only to markets, but also to entire countries.

The piece contrasts the seeming stability of Syria with the relatively chaotic environment in Lebanon just prior to the Arab Spring. But Lebanon which has had to adapt itself to new conditions after a 15-year civil war has proven robust in the face of widespread upheaval throughout the Middle East. Syria which seemed to be a picture of stability is now in shambles, a victim of its own rigidity.

The authors outline five causes for this fragility among seemingly stable regimes:

  1. Concentrated decision-making system
  2. Absence of economic diversity
  3. High overall indebtedness and high leverage to particular industries
  4. Lack of political variability
  5. No record of surviving shocks

Counterintuitively, Italy is rated as far more robust than France because of Italy's highly decentralized political system, a system in which 14 different prime ministers in 25 years have caused minimal upheaval in Italian governance. France, which is much more centralized and also heavily indebted, is fragile in comparison with regard to economic shocks and changes in top leadership. The almost constant parliamentary political crises in Italy hardly register on the country. The rise of the anti-immigration right in France is sending shudders through the electorate.

Japan which has been a paragon of stability in Asia is actually quite vulnerable for two reasons: the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world and the uninterrupted reign of the Liberal Democratic Party from 1955 to 2009. High debt and lack of political variability await a trigger that would bring about unusual volatility.

Turkey, a highly centralized country heavily dependent on tourism for its foreign currency, is experiencing intense turmoil related to internal dissent from the ethnic Kurds, the spillover of the civil war in neighboring Syria, and the consequent loss of tourist revenues. In Taleb's and Treverton's parlance, the country is highly leveraged to tourism.

Moderate volatility in economies in the form of periodic recessions weeds out weak firms thus making the overall economy stronger. When that volatility is suppressed, as it has been again and again in the last 30 years, many of the weak and reckless survive along with the strong and prudent. In fact, the reckless get rewarded for taking dangerous risks, especially in the financial sector where they get to keep their bonuses while taxpayers clean up the mess.

Moderate volatility in the affairs of nations teaches them lessons, forces them to adjust to changing circumstances and in general keeps people sharp and on their toes. Difficulties teach us far more than successes and thus make us far more robust in the face of future difficulties.

There is such a thing as too much volatility. Exercising is good for your health. Dying of heat exhaustion because of an overly long workout in excessive heat is too much volatility. On the other hand, sitting and watching television for most of the day only sets up the mind and body for catastrophic volatility in the form of major health problems such as a heart attack and an impaired ability to think through and solve major life problems.

Finding the right level of volatility for individuals and for societies and their institutions isn't as hard as it seems. What's hard is accepting that level.

The Wild Edge Of Sorrow: A Book Review By Carolyn Baker

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Carolyn Baker

At this time of year we sit in a transition moment between summer and fall. Vacations are ending or have ended, children and college students are contemplating returning to the classroom, and in the Northern Hemisphere, most of us are aware that within the next two months, we may experience the first frost or even the first snowfall.

As we say goodbye to summer, there may be some wistfulness, some sorrow that it all passed too quickly, and the chilly winds of autumn will be here before we know it.

For many, summer is a time to forget all of that—warm days and nights, cannon ball dives in the swimming pool, perhaps even a summer romance. As a child, I remember how short-lived all summers seemed to be and how onerous the return to school felt in the fall.

Life is short, then you die. Summer is short, then you go back to school.

No one enjoys feeling sad. We do everything in our power to evade, avoid, distract, delay, bypass, bargain with, deny, dismiss, and repress sorrow. Yet one man has the courage to ask us to consider signing up for “an apprenticeship with sorrow.” That man is psychotherapist and author, Francis Weller, in his new book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and The Sacred Work of Grief. (North Atlantic Books, 2015) This book is an instruction manual for those who understand that as the author writes, “Bringing grief and death out of the shadow is our spiritual responsibility, our sacred duty.” (xviii)

So why should we consent to an apprenticeship with sorrow and read this instruction manual for doing so? From my perspective, the answer is quite simple: Unacknowledged and unexpressed grief is the most oppressive and agonizing burden that humans are carrying at this moment in history. And not only humans. Almost daily we witness media footage of animals whose mates and family members perish, and the surviving creature sits or lies beside them for hours or days engaging in what can only be inferred as deep grieving. How can we know the grief of hundreds of species of animals that go extinct each day? Or—how can we blithely deny that they are mourning the loss of their fellow creatures?

We live in a culture in which, as Weller writes, “…grief has been colonized by the clinical world, taken hostage by diagnoses and pharmaceutical regimes” whereas on the other hand, “…grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential experience of being human.” (xviii)

Grief is nearly an obscenity in this culture. When the word is uttered, it may be followed by some reference to Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief or the usefulness of grief support groups or bereavement leave. The latter, of course, is a wrinkle, a glitch in one’s otherwise “productive” life for which one is allowed perhaps a week in order to “get done with it,” “get over it,” and certainly “put it behind them.” The moment one attempts to have a serious conversation about grief or suggest that it might be an important healing process, one is accused of being morbid or “dark.”

On the morning of June 6, 2015, I briefly watched the funeral of Beau Biden, son of the current Vice-President, Joe Biden. As so-called mourners entered the church and took their seats, I witnessed one of the most tightly controlled and sanitized displays of grief repression imaginable. I saw few tears and a host of well-behaved people who vigilantly maintained an image of composure, and when President Obama gave the eulogy, his five seconds of “tearing up” made international headlines.

Whereas our culture assumes that public grieving is somewhat childish, Francis Weller passionately asserts that “Grief is the work of mature men and women.” Moreover, it is not a private matter that we should isolate within the four walls of our home or conceal by wearing sunglasses in public. Many indigenous cultures and generations of our ancestors understood that grief is a communal event. It is, says Weller, “…an intensely interior process that can only be navigated in the presence of community.” (116) For many tribes, community grieving was a way of maintaining “soul hygiene” because the community knew that when people do not grieve, they become toxic to the rest of the community.

To develop an apprenticeship with sorrow, we require community support—safe spaces where we can grieve with others, our bodies reverberating with the grief we feel and that others feel with us. Hence the grief rituals that Francis Weller regularly offers—rituals which not only allow people to discharge their grief, but which bond people deeply in an intimate circle of sorrow and celebration.

In my work with grieving individuals and in the grief workshops I offer, I commonly hear two misconceptions. One is the assumption that the myriad types of grief we experience are separate from each other, as if we could compartmentalize them. People often ask me if the workshop is for people grieving the loss of loved ones or if it is for people grieving our withering planet or if it is for people who have a terminal illness. When this happens I share Francis Weller’s explanation of The Five Gates of Grief which include every type of grief we can experience and how they are interrelated. In his 2011 book on grief Entering The Healing Ground, the Five Gates are clarified, but then explained in more depth in The Wild Edge of Sorrow.

Additionally, people often express to me their concern that if they begin grieving, they will never stop, and they fear becoming “stuck” in the grieving process. In fact, as The Wild Edge of Sorrow explains, we are much more likely to become “stuck” in our grief if we do not acknowledge it and continue to avoid feeling it. For indeed, as Francis Weller has often written, depression is frequently un-metabolized grief.

Allowing ourselves to take the risk of letting go and relinquishing control, we experience what Weller calls “a state of derangement.” This is not a state of psychosis or emotional breakdown, but rather “…a state that is beyond our normal way of perceiving and experiencing ourselves and the world.” This requires a letting go, and “Derangement is necessary because our current emotional ‘arrangement’ is not working…This carefully ‘arranged’ relationship with life denies us the freedom to receive the support we require from our community in a time of loss.” (86)

But what more does an apprenticeship with sorrow offer us? Do we merely discharge our grief and move on?

In fact, conscious grieving paradoxically deepens our appreciation of beauty, enhances our creativity, and very often, enriches our capacity for experiencing joy. As Francis Weller notes, “Grief helps us stay closely related to the other face of this mystery which is gratitude. The tension between these two sisters, grief and gratitude, is what helps us to avoid leaving this life ‘sighing and frightened, or full of argument’ in the words of the poet, Mary Oliver. We are freed to love this life, and when we are asked finally to release it, we can let it go.” (132)

Never in the history of our species have we so desperately needed to engage in conscious grieving. Not only are we carrying decades of our own grief, but we almost certainly are carrying the grief of past generations and the grief of other species. In fact, I believe that other species are asking us—perhaps even begging us to grieve their losses. When he is able to grieve, says Weller, his ability to feel this planetary pain “puts me back in a profound state of relatedness to where I live, to the watershed, to my home.” (143-144) Some may assume that given the state of the planet, grieving is pointless. Yet The Wild Edge of Sorrow asserts that, “…we have to keep some sense of our deep soul obligation to the planet alive, no matter if we are leaving. I feel it is an imperative that I do whatever I can to register the sorrows of the planet. We have to remember that much of the grief that we are feeling isn’t ours. It isn’t personal. We are literally feeling the sorrows of the watershed.” (143-144) In fact, the entire Earth community has a right to our bearing witness to their losses.

I recently interviewed Stephen Jenkinson, known to some as the Griefwalker. In the interview he spoke of the etymology of the word “catastrophe.” The Greek prefix cata, refers to a descent—a going down and inward. “Strophe” is a suffix that is associated with braiding or interweaving a connection. In summary, Jenkinson asserted that this time of “catastrophe” compels us to descend—to go downward rather than soaring; to focus inwardly as much as we pay attention to the external world—and, to do this together in connection and community. For Jenkinson, conscious grieving is a skill that we must develop at this moment of loss and demise. And he further concludes that our work is to open to the descent together and to create communities of individuals who are practicing the skill of grieving for ourselves and for the Earth.

Grief work is unique to each person grieving. There is no one way to grieve in a world where everyone and everything is inundated with sorrow and loss. Nevertheless, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, empathically and compassionately shows us how to begin the descent and how we might intertwine our journey with the journeys of others who long to engage in the sacred work of grief. For there, in the cold, dark well are bright, golden coins of joy and gratitude.

What is the price of oil telling us?

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

Market fundamentalists tell us that prices convey information. Yet, while our barbers and hairdressers might be able to give us an extended account of why their prices have changed in the last few years, commodities such as oil--which reached a six-year low last week--stand mute. To fill that silence, many people are only too eager to speak for oil. And, they have been speaking volumes. So much information in that one price!

First, as prices fell last year when OPEC refused to cut its oil production in the face of slowing world demand, the industry kept saying that it could continue to produce from American tight oil fields at around $80 a barrel and be profitable. Then, as prices fell further, the industry and its consultants assured everyone that while growth in tight oil production would slow, it would still be profitable for the vast majority of wells planned.

Petroleum geologist and consultant Art Berman is probably the best representative from the skeptical camp. For many years Berman has been pointing to the high cost of getting fracked oil out of the ground. And, those costs led to negative free cash flow for most tight oil operators for several years in a row--that is, they spent considerably more cash than they took in, making up the balance with debt and stock issuance. Not surprisingly, the operators took that money and kept drilling as fast as they could.

It was a recipe for oversupply and a crash, one that is now threatening the solvency of many fracking-dependent U.S. oil companies.

As if to the rescue, the giant consulting firm Deloitte called a bottom in the oil pricewhen U.S. futures prices hit $48 a barrel on February 4--a little prematurely it seems. Friday's price for September futures on the NYMEX closed at $42.50.

Not to worry. Two major international oil companies, Chevron and Exxon, declared back in December that $40-a-barrel oil won't be a problem for them. One of the sources cited was Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson whose company has had trouble replacing its oil reserves for more than a decade at much higher average prices. In fact, oil majors have been cutting exploration budgets since early 2014 when oil prices were still hovering above $100.

It seemed as if the message that the price of oil was sending from about the middle of last year until just recently was going unheeded by American oil producers. U.S. oil production kept rising despite dramatically falling prices. But when production growth finally stopped in June, there was hope that less supply would be weighing on prices, and predictions abounded that the price would go higher.

The reasoning behind this call was that continuing economic growth worldwide would combine with stagnating growth in oil supplies to squeeze the market enough to move prices up.

While low oil prices were supposed to "spur the global economy" according the the International Monetary Fund, The Economist magazine took a more measured view. It also looked at the decline in employment and investment in oil which had previously been booming.

High-cost oil from the Canadian tar sands is also taking a significant hit as investment is slashed in the face of low prices.

With the recent renewed slump in oil prices, the industry is trotting out the same kind of stories it trotted out when oil was around $80 and then $60. Oil at $30 a barrel will be no problem for a special breed of drillers in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota, we are told. If you actually read the story, it is stating the obvious: That break-even prices vary from well to well. And, the writer refers to "realized" prices, not the NYMEX futures price. It turns out that because Bakken lacks pipelines for transporting oil, it must use oil trains. That's expensive.

So, those buying oil from North Dakota take the freight costs into account. The average realized price on Friday $28.75 for the type of oil extracted from Bakken's deep shales in North Dakota. While wells that are already drilled often produce regardless of price because those who operate them must pay back debt, it is doubtful that very many new wells would be profitable at this price. And, it is worth noting those investing their capital do not as a rule seek to break even. A break-even proposition usually sends them looking elsewhere to invest their money.

Beyond this, there is a broader consideration. And, it is something which very few people seem to be talking about when it comes to all the information that is supposed to be conveyed by the oil price.

As the world's central energy commodity, oil is a good indicator of economic activity. With the nearly universal conviction that the previous bounce in oil prices to around $60 signaled a stronger economy and thus stronger oil demand, logic would dictate that we now consider the opposite: That the new slide in oil prices is signaling new weakness in the world economy. If so, it's the kind that ought to frighten even the optimists this time.

Having said all this, it might be wise to take any day's price reports in the same way as the low or high temperatures on a particular day. A cool morning in summer does not mean winter is right around the corner. Nor does a hot day in mid-winter spell the end of the season. What's more important is to look at the overall picture to see if the season is changing--or even more important, if the climate itself has shifted, both literally and metaphorically.

That takes a lot more analysis than the daily market reports can provide and than most people--even those whose job it is to follow markets--have patience for.

In that regard the long view suggests that the acute investment slump in oil which is unfolding will lead to tight supplies in a few years (because of all the wells that are not going to be drilled to replace the depletion from existing wells). That would set us up for a price spike at some point as it takes a considerable amount of time to ramp up new drilling after a long period of decline.

All this assumes that the current seeming weakness in the economy doesn't morph into something that would cause a long-term economic decline or stagnation which would keep oil prices low for a much longer period.

Keeping It Real: Real Deep Underground --- Book Review of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era

Originally posted on
Ending the Fossil Fuel Era
By Community Solutions Fellow, Thomas Princen, Jack P. Manno, & Pamela L. Martin (Eds. )
MIT Press | 2015 | 408 pp. | ISBN: 9780262527330

One approach to solving the climate-change problem is through centralized government intervention, for instance a tax on carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions. However, political realities, especially in the United States, make it difficult to implement such a policy; furthermore, this approach elides the numerous other environmental and social costs of extracting and burning fossil fuels. The edited volume Ending the Fossil Fuel Era, by contrast, calls for an often localized politics of keeping it in the ground (KIIG), of resisting the extraction of fossil fuels and other resources in the first place. As Thomas Princen puts it, “If an emissions focus…fails to confront the source of the problem (both physical and political), then logically there is only one thing to do: go upstream to the source, to extraction.” Regarding the majority of fossil fuels, for the planet to sustain a livable future—for humans, at least—the only viable strategy is never to extract them.

This does mean change, as Princen, Jack Manno, and Pamela Martin argue that fossil fuels have been providing a high-energy lifestyle that will not be possible once we make the switch to renewables. Yet we must change for the sake of the planet, for our futures. Part of the strategy is to delegitimize fossil fuels, to make them appear, not the natural order of things, but a kind of abomination that must be stopped. Along with this comes an alteration of the assumption that the traditional Western pattern of increasing consumption and energy use is the only path forward; rather, conceptions of the good life must be radically different, while nature should be valued for itself. Local political movements then step in and achieve victories on the ground, or rather on keeping it in the ground.

This, at least, is the theory; however, it is abstract and empty without actual case studies. Fortunately, Ending the Fossil Fuel Eraprovides several of these, illustrating various battles to keep fossil fuels, and other resources, in the ground forever. These chapters have in common an illustration of the “resource curse,” the fact that countries and regions with an abundant, wealth-generating resource such as coal or oil tend to develop one-dimensional economies dependent on that resource. Even worse, much of that wealth often flows to the lucky few who own the capital and the rights to extraction while the locals end up with polluted air, land, and water that mars the landscape and often sickens them. Indigenous people, for instance in the Amazon, usually suffer the worst, as their traditional land is invaded and their way of life disrupted.

Indeed, it is often indigenous people, supported by their traditions, who lead citizens’ protest movements against such extraction. Manno and Martin cite the Potawatami Robin Kimmerer that “Taking coal buried deep in the earth, for which we must inflict irreparable damage, violates” the ancient code of many Native Americans. “By no stretch of the imagination is coal given to us. We have to wound the land and water to gouge it out of Mother Earth.” This might risk simplifying the attitudes of a complex array of cultures, some of whom support extraction for the economic benefits. Still, the editors of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era locate native cultures as a key source of resistance and of developing an alternative vision. Known as buen vivir in Spanish, or the good life, this philosophy has strong echoes in those parts of the sustainability movement that call for recognizing quality of life as far more important than economic growth.

Ecuador is notable for having “rights of nature enshrined in its constitution,” a policy bound up with indigenous tradition respecting nature, as Martin explains. Equally groundbreaking, Ecuador, at least until recently, had an actual KIIG policy regarding the oil beneath the Yasuni National Park. The lost revenue was to be funded by international groups including states, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations. This is an opposite strategy to a carbon tax in that, rather than paying a charge for the environmental damage one causes, outside sources pay for the profits one is voluntarily forgoing. Regarding developing countries, there is a certain logic here, as they will be suffering the planetary disruptions of fossil fuels but have never had a chance to profit from them. So they should be paid for the resources they forego developing. Actually implementing this, however, is difficult. Adapted in 2010, Ecuador’s KIIG measure had raised $290 million by the end of 2012, “far from the goal of $3.5 billion over ten years.” Indeed, after political squabbling, Ecuador has recently reversed course and opened the area to drilling (Vaughan, 2014). Any victories for the KIIG movement may be temporary as the capacity to extract resources remains, at least until a fully renewable economy is implemented around the planet.

The KIIG movement is also active in the United States, notably in the struggle against mountaintop-removal coal mining. As so often occurs with resource extraction, the locals receive the worst of the pollution and social disruption, while seeing only a portion of the economic benefits—although a larger part in the United States than do the indigenous people in the Amazon. Still, the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal are particularly egregious, permanently altering a huge natural feature while polluting water and harming ecosystems. As Laura Bozzi notes in her chapter, “[b]urying the headwaters harms the entire stream length,” destroying habitat, reducing nutrient flows, and carrying toxic compounds. Still, many local people support such mining for the economic benefits it brings. Even though earlier forms of mining employed far more people, economic options beyond mining are scant in these communities. The split between pro- and anti-mining people is thus divisive in many Appalachian towns. Bozzi herself was criticized as an outsider when she took part in anti-mining protests. The anti-mining movement is itself split between those who want better environmental regulations, along with more local jobs, and those who want to end coal mining altogether. The latter are working to replace lost jobs with clean-energy opportunities, although it is difficult to see how such jobs will remain local. The situation in Appalachia thus illustrates the intersection of class, economics, and the environment as it affects KIIG, showing just how vexed and divisive such movements can be.

Many of the problems of resource extraction are highlighted in a chapter on gold mining in El Salvador, by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Although not actually about fossil fuels, this contribution illustrates a recurring set of problems regarding resource extraction, while showing problems with free-trade agreements. When El Salvador, supported by a strong citizens’ movement, attempted to ban gold mining that dumped cyanide and arsenic into rivers, it faced a $100 million corporate suit under the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement. While a World Bank tribunal ultimately rejected this, legal costs are high, and El Salvador now faces a second suit, this time for $301 million. Such tactics might discourage countries from even attempting environmental and labor protections. Broad and Cavanaugh explain that “many believe…the very existence of investor-state clauses in trade agreements is an affront to democracy.” I would further ask why these agreements allow corporations to sue for loss of profit when governments institute environmental and labor protections, but do not allow similar suits against corporations for harming local rights. As I have argued regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, free-trade agreements have moved far beyond affecting only trade, and the entire process of negotiating these agreements needs to be more open, with input from a variety of stakeholders beyond the financial sector.

Finally, a chapter on the Norwegian extraction of North Sea oil, by Helge Ryggvik and Berit Kristoffersen, illuminates the long-term difficulties in getting off fossil fuel. If any country should have been able to avoid the “resource curse,” it is Norway with its vigorous democracy and Scandinavian tradition of environmental awareness. Indeed, following the 1969 discovery of oil, Norway seemed exemplary in its regime of a “moderate pace of extraction” that followed strong environmental rules. However, intermittent unemployment problems—inevitable in all modern economies—gave companies the opportunity to increase the pace of oil production. Ryggvik and Kristoffersen argue that this has left Norway largely an oil state overly dependent on a diminishing resource and has crowded out any move toward renewable energy. Thus, “[i]n 2012, Sweden produced more than five times as much wind energy as Norway, and Denmark produced nearly six times as much.” (It is also true that Norway generates most of its electricity from its abundant hydro resources.)

Oil-extraction advocates argue that Norway is among the cleaner producers of petroleum in the world and thus should be allowed to maximize its output. Yet Ryggvik and Kristoffersen explain that in 2010, “the aggregate numbers from the Middle East were better than Norway’s, with 6.9 kilograms carbon dioxide per barrel, compared to Norway’s 8.7.” I would also ask whether Norway’s production of “clean” oil means that countries producing dirtier oil, such as Nigeria, will produce less of it. It seems likely that the latter will simply dump their oil on the world market, leading to lower prices and more reckless overall use of petroleum. Perhaps a system that pays the least efficient producers not to drill oil—similar to Ecuador’s attempt to keep oil in the ground—would work best. As always, the question of who would implement such a system remains.

Could the energy companies themselves be among those who implement the end of fossil fuels? The boldest statement of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era is the chapter “Exit Strategies,” by Princen and Adele Santana, which argues that the extractive industries must themselves participate in ending the fossil-fuel era and may already be preparing to do so. The problem is that admitting this, acknowledging that the large majority of paper assets are actually stranded and will never be developed, would drastically reduce the companies’ value. Like a master poker player, the companies thus disguise any future intentions to divest. Princen and Santana argue that oil and gas companies already think in terms of decades, a far longer timescale than most industries, and thus may be planning an “orderly exit.” These companies’ underlying philosophy could move from a twentieth century mission of “powering industrial society” or “building a great nation” to a twenty-first century one of “transitioning out of fossil fuel dependency” along with “creating a just and sustainable world.” It is certainly plausible that, behind the scenes, many fossil-fuel companies are beginning to think this way. Indeed, a number have called for a carbon tax to make the future business environment more predictable (The NewYork Times, 2015). Nevertheless, I would need to see more evidence of a deep change in their thinking, most importantly a much larger investment in renewable energy. Furthermore, as long as the major energy companies are making plans to drill in such places as the Arctic and the Canadian tar sands, it is difficult to believe that they are pursuing a long-term KIIG strategy.

The chapter on exit strategies is something of an anomaly in Ending the Fossil Fuel Era, which largely advocates an oppositional approach. KIIG represents an alternative, or perhaps a complementary, strategy to that of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. The latter work best on a global scale, although they are currently being pursued in various national and regional frameworks. KIIG, by contrast, represents a simple philosophy that can be pursued on a case-by-case local basis, with clear villains in the form of coal mines and drilling sites. It seems unlikely that either strategy, by itself, will work. An effective KIIG strategy, however, may help set the stage for the kind of international regime that we need to eventually end the extraction of fossil fuels. It will lessen the power and political influence of the energy companies, and perhaps change the business model of at least some of them. Meanwhile, the economic, and therefore political, power of renewable-energy companies is beginning to increase. Along with this, we will need a deep change in local values, away from a philosophy of endless growth. Numerous factors need to coalesce for humanity to avoid great suffering in making our way out of the fossil-fuel era.

Introduction to "Sufficiency Economy"

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander 


What is to be done? This is surely one of the central questions for those of us who are animated by what Charles Eisenstein calls ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’; a central question for those of us with the fire of ecological democracy burning in our eyes. Yet, it is a question that demands engagement with three preliminary questions, the answers to which provide the necessary guidance for effective practical action. First, we must adequately understand the nature and extent of the overlapping crises that confront us today. Secondly, we must envision the alternative world, or matrix of alternative worlds, that would adequately dissolve the current crises and provide the foundations for a flourishing human civilisation into the deep future. And thirdly, having provided an accurate critique and having envisioned an appropriate and effective alternative, we must meditate deeply on the question of strategy – the question of how best to direct our energies and resources if we are to maximise our chances of building the new world we have imagined. Then, and only then, are we in a position to ask ourselves the ultimate question: what is to be done? If that question is asked prematurely, or if it is asked having answered any one of the preliminary questions inadequately, then there is a great risk that one’s action, motivated by the best of intentions, is directed in ways that fail to effectively produce any positive effect and, indeed, may even be counter-productive to the cause.

The publication of my two volumes of collected essays – PROSPEROUS DESCENT and SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY – represents an attempt to engage these questions as directly and as clearly as possible. The primary motivation for doing so arises from my concern that much of the literature on ‘sustainable development’ fails to understand the magnitude of our overlapping crises, and for that reason, the envisioned alternatives or solutions widely proposed tend to be fundamentally misconceived. Furthermore, when the critique of the existing world is off target and when the envisioned alternatives are misconceived, it should come as no surprise that the strategies proposed for achieving the stated goals are similarly flawed. If our map is poorly drawn and our compass is broken, we are unlikely to arrive at where we need to go. Is it any wonder humanity seems so lost and directionless? 

Over the years of writing these essays my ideas and perspectives have naturally evolved in a dialectical relationship with other people’s ideas, and are constantly being refined further as my experience of the ever-changing world is digested and reflected upon. The human condition is such that the sands of thought forever shift beneath our feet. Nevertheless, having now spent the best part of a decade engaging the questions posed above, I notice that the evidential ground upon which I stand is firming up, providing me with confidence that the position I defend – radical though it may seem – is accurate, even if there may be matters of detail that will always be open to revision or refinement. 

In this introduction I would like to state some of the fundamental tenets which shape the following essays, in the hope that this will guide the interpretation of those essays, especially at those times when these central ideas lie beneath the surface of a more focused discussion. As I am writing this introduction after having written the essays, there is also the luxury of having the full benefit of what I have learned throughout the writing process.

Here are twelve defining theses that shape my work: 

1. Pursuing limitless growth on a finite planet is a recipe for ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. Despite the controversy that still surrounds the ‘limits to growth’ perspective, there is something strikingly obvious about the idea that if human population keeps growing, if our resource and energy demands on the natural environment continue expanding, and if our streams of waste and pollution keep growing, then eventually we will undermine the ecological foundations of our civilisation so violently that nature will fight back and bring things into balance. Let us face the fact, too, that ‘bringing things into balance’ is a euphemism for mass population die-off, signifying a prospective tragedy of unspeakable proportions. So the question is not so much whether there are limits to growth – of course there are limits to growth! – but rather when those limits will begin to impose themselves on our current ways of living and force us to live differently. It would be far better for people and planet that we anticipate these limits and begin working toward a post-growth economy now. Needless to say, this will not be easy. We have developed two centuries of industrial, growth-orientated momentum that will make it incredibly difficult to consciously redirect the economic trajectory so fundamentally. But transitioning ‘beyond growth’ is a transformation that is coming, one way or another. Better it be by design than disaster. 

2. ‘Green growth’ is a dangerous myth that entrenches the status quo. When the limits to growth are raised in objection to the growth model of progress, many people seem comforted by the fantasy that science and technology will save the day. Current forms of growth may have ecological limits, these people acknowledge, but they then insist that the global economy can and should keep growing forever, if only we learn how to produce and consume more efficiently. This is nice in theory, perhaps, but it is biophysically naïve. It is of the utmost importance, of course, that we use the best of our technological knowledge to help us achieve a sustainable way of life through efficiency improvements. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. But efficiency alone cannot ‘decouple’ economic growth from ecological impact sufficiently to produce a sustainable way of life. The extent of decoupling required is simply too great. To be effective, the drive for efficiency must be shaped and limited by an ethics of sufficiency. That is to say, our aim should not be to do ‘more with less’ (which is the flawed paradigm of green growth), but to do ‘enough with less’ (which is the paradigm of sufficiency). 

3. ‘Degrowth’ (i.e., planned contraction of resource and energy demands) is necessary in the developed nations in order to move toward a just and sustainable economy that operates within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet. When the extent of ecological overshoot is understood, and bearing in mind the fact that ecological room must be left for poorest nations to attain a dignified existence, there is no escaping the fact that degrowth is required in the developed – or rather overdeveloped – regions of the world. This is not a popular thesis, but it does reflect a biophysical reality. 

4. Addressing poverty within a degrowth framework implies a redistribution of wealth and power on a much more egalitarian basis. Within the growth model it is assumed that poverty will be eliminated through continued growth of the global economy via some ‘trickle down’ effect. This is an ecologically unsupportable pathway to poverty elimination, because it relies on continued growth on an already overburdened planet. Once it is recognised that growth cannot solve the problem of poverty and in fact threatens to exacerbate it through climate change, continued ecological degradation, or economic collapse, it becomes clear that the only coherent pathway beyond poverty lies in a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power within a degrowth model of progress. This is not the place to argue how that could be achieved – there are many options. The present point is simply to acknowledge that it is a necessary feature of any transition to a just and sustainable world. 

5. Degrowth implies radically reduced energy and resource requirements compared to overdeveloped nations. Among other things, degrowth means giving up affluent, consumer lifestyles and embracing ‘simpler ways’ of living that provide for mostly local needs using mostly local resources. This is an implication of the environmental predicament that few dare to acknowledge, since most people seem resistant to giving up the comforts and conveniences of consumer affluence. But given the extent of ecological overshoot, there is no way that the consumer way of life could be universalised. Consumerism was an experiment that failed. It led civilisation down a dead end. We are now being called to reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture and explore new conceptions of progress and prosperity. This does not necessarily mean hardship. It means focusing on what is sufficient to live well – and pursuing that goal with all the wisdom, creativity, and compassion we can muster. 

6. It is not enough merely to live more simply within existing structures and systems. While challenging ourselves to live more simply is necessary, the even greater challenge is to begin building new systems and structures that support and encourage ‘simpler ways’ of life. We cannot wait for governments to do this for us. First and foremost, we must organise and network at the grassroots level and begin building the new world within the shell of the world. 

7. At some point, when the social movement becomes powerful enough, there will need to be some democratic social planning of the economy to ensure that the necessary degrowth transition does not collapse the economy. Accordingly, to advocate for degrowth is ultimately to embrace a reconceived form of eco-socialism. This means that the most fundamental questions about what is produced and how it is distributed cannot be left primarily to market forces. While there will inevitably be a place for forms of private property and market exchange, any successful transition to a degrowth economy is going to require democratic planning of the economy, preferably in highly decentralised and localised ways. Many wasteful or damaging sectors of the existing economy – such as advertising, fossil fuel production, private motor vehicle production, and the finance industries – will need to be greatly reduced or repurposed. Other sectors – such as organic farming, renewable energy production, and public transport – will need to be ramped up.

8. Degrowth is thus incompatible with capitalism. Admittedly, this is a realisation that I resisted for some time, hoping that the social, economic, and environmental crises that human beings face would not require such terrifyingly fundamental change. Couldn’t we just reform capitalism? Eventually, however, I realised that there was no honour in deceiving myself and potentially others just because the challenge of replacing capitalism seemed, and still seems, like an impossible pipe dream. The first question to grapple with is whether capitalism needs to be replaced, not whether we will ever succeed in doing so, and the nature of capitalism is such that it is unable to deal with the crises we face. Capitalism has a ‘grow or die’ imperative built into its very structure. At every turn participants in the market economy are more or less compelled to pursue profit or else risk being destroyed by competitors running them out of business. The technologies and products that are developed under capitalism are the ones that promise the best return, not the ones that are most needed. Similarly, the distribution of resources is determined by who has the most money, not who needs the resources the most. The structures and incentives of capitalism also create constant pressure for individuals and businesses to externalise environmental and social costs, making it impossible to price commodities in a way that ensures ‘optimal’ consumption and production. The consequence is that the justifications of capitalism based on wealth-maximisation and efficiency are rarely if ever reflected in reality. Furthermore, the vast amounts of private and public debt that have been taken on in recent decades depend on continued growth for those debts to be repaid. For all these reasons, the idea of reforming capitalism in a way that deals with the crises of civilisation entails irresolvable contractions. Perhaps the most compelling reason for why capitalism cannot produce a just and sustainable world, however, is because capitalist economies would collapse if existing structures tried to deal with the necessary degrowth of resource and energy consumption. This is especially so in a globalised economy where it is becoming increasingly difficult for one capitalist economy to defy the neoliberal world order. Localisation and contraction of national economies in such a context will require democratic planning of the economy. 

9. A swift transition to renewable energy is necessary to respond to climate change and peak oil. Be that as it may, renewable energy will be unable to sustain a growth-orientated, consumerist society. A society based on renewable energy is a moderate energy society, which means energy-intensive societies must prepare for energy descent. Given the close connection between energy and economic activity, the required energy descent necessarily means economic contraction.

10. Climate change and peak oil are not the fundamental problems. Rather, they are the symptoms of the cultures and systems of consumer capitalism. While it is absolutely necessary to work toward responding to climate change and peak oil as effectively as possible, we should not lose sight of the more fundamental challenge of replacing the cultures and systems that produce those problems. Otherwise we will find ourselves hacking at the branches of the problems, when we should be aiming for the roots. After all, a post-carbon capitalism would still be a growth economy that degraded the natural environment, alienated workers, and distributed wealth so unjustly. 

11. Material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives. Perhaps this thesis is the most fundamental, because any political or economic system is inevitably shaped by some conception of the good life. Currently, global capitalism conceives of human beings as consumers who can achieve happiness by purchasing goods and services in the market economy. On that basis, global growth is seen as the most direct pathway to human flourishing. By contrast, degrowth arises out of an alternative conception of what it means to be human. It poses the question, ‘What is it that makes life worth living?’ and answers that question by saying, ‘Something other than the limitless consumption of material things.’ Consumerism just does not satisfy the universal human craving for meaning, and the sooner the world realises this the better it will be for everyone and the planet. In short, I argue that the simple life can be a good life. 

12. Chances of success do not look good. Despite the increasingly robust case for the necessity of a post-capitalist politics and economics – for the necessity of degrowth – we should not pretend that this revolutionary project shows many signs of achieving its ambitious goals. Although there are nascent movements based on notions of degrowth – permaculture, Transition Towns, intentional community, and voluntary simplicity – in the greater scheme of things these subcultures, promising though they are, remain small. Furthermore, despite the increasing prominence environmental issues are given in the mainstream media, there is a pervasive techno-optimism that shapes the discussion of these issues, meaning that the reality of the crises are understated and the proposed solutions (typically market-based) are misconceived. Under these conditions, a mass movement for degrowth seems highly unlikely. But does this mean that we should throw our hands up in the air and distract ourselves with television and consumer trinkets while the curtain closes on our civilisation? Surely not. As Wendell Berry says, we should not focus on the question of whether we will succeed; we should focus on the question of what is the right thing to do. And that means doing everything in our power to resist the forces that are degrading people and planet by prefiguring ways of living that respect people and planet. We should do this irrespective of our chances of realising the ideal of a degrowth society. We should do this because it is the right thing to do. Fortunately, there are two silver linings to this approach. First, even if we fail to stop the growth economy from growing itself to death, we should still be trying to prefigure a ‘simpler way’ to live here and now, because if we are to face economic collapse, then the more systems and practices of sufficiency we can get in place today, the better prepared and more resilient we will be should the status quo be disrupted for one reason or another. Secondly, and most promising of all, working on building the new world promises, if not a life free from strife and hard work, at least a life full of meaning, passion, and love. And that is something we can cling to even if it transpires that the story of civilisation does not have a happy ending. 

• • •

Before outlining the content of the chapters to come, a few more words are required on the vocabularies of degrowth, steady state economy, and sufficiency economy, which I use throughout these chapters, sometimes interchangeably. To avoid confusion, let me offer some clarification here, although context should also generally assist with interpretation. Degrowth, as I use the term, refers primarily to a macroeconomic model that is defined by planned contraction of the resource and energy requirements of over-developed economies. Obviously, degrowth is a transitional phase, not an end-sate, because an economy could not and should not ‘degrow’ indefinitely. Accordingly, the basic vision of sustainability that I subscribe to and defend is one in which overgrown economies initiate a degrowth process of planned economic contraction, a process that would eventually stabilise in a steady state economy operating within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet. I do not argue that this is likely, only that it is necessary. The poorest nations may need to increase their energy and resource demands to attain a dignified standard of living, but eventually they too would need to stop growing and also transition to a steady state economy. Within this broad framework, a ‘sufficiency economy’, as I use the term, is essentially a form of steady state economy, but I choose to employ the vocabulary of sufficiency to emphasise some issues that I find misleading or problematic in the work of most ecological economists, whom I otherwise admire greatly. 

First of all, ecological economists rarely discuss the radical lifestyle implications of ‘one planet’ living. By employing the notion of a ‘sufficiency economy’, therefore, I hope to emphasise the fact that one planet living involves abandoning affluence in favour of a radically simpler way to live based on material sufficiency. Secondly, ecological economists have not always discussed the limits of renewable energy or the economic implications of energy descent in much detail, and in this regard I consider the ‘biophysical economists’ to have made an important contribution to the debate. A sufficiency economy is an economy based primarily or entirely on renewable energy, but due to the inability of renewable energy systems to replace fossil fuels entirely, this means significantly reducing energy consumption compared to the richest nations today. As noted above, given the close connection between energy and economy, significant energy descent has huge economic implications that have been insufficiently discussed by most ecological economists. Thirdly, most ecological economists, to my mind, tend to have too much faith in market mechanisms. As discussed above, if degrowth is truly what is required, then significant social control over the economy will be needed if economic contraction is to avoid an unstable descent into economic and social chaos. Primarily for these three reasons I use the term ‘sufficiency economy’ to refer to a degrowth economy that culminates in a steady state economy – but a steady state economy that is shaped by the three points of difference just outlined.

Energy, the repressed: Paging Dr. Freud

originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

Jeremy Rifkin announced the end of work in a book by that title in 1995. Today, we are once again being told that the end of work is nigh. The Atlantic Monthly tells us so in a piece entitled, "A World Without Work." Automation and computer technology will bring unimaginable change and prosperity--and result in the loss of millions of jobs that will not be replaced.

I heard this before when I was young. In the 1960s there was talk of a three-day workweek for similar reasons. Obviously, it didn't work out.

My purpose here is not to provide a detailed critique of such prognostications. Rather, I ask the same question I ask when I see a science-fiction film depicting widespread space travel and planetary colonization. Where are they getting all the energy to do these things?

In the Atlantic piece--a clever and rather more subtle discussion of the post-work world than I've seen elsewhere--the word "energy" appears exactly zero times. It is assumed that humans will somehow extract enough energy to run all the new machines that will serve (or run?) us. It is assumed that climate change will not be so disruptive as to make our current technical civilization crumble or at least falter significantly. It is assumed that the modeled effects of climate change on the world's major grain growing areas--lots of drought--won't change our priorities drastically toward growing more food in more places. In short, the future is just the past with a lot more energy-guzzling gadgets and apparently a lot more playtime.

Victorian culture repressed sex, not the act itself--population rose briskly in 19th century Britain--but discussion of sex, examination of it. Today, one can walk into any decent-sized bookstore and get an illustrated manual on sexual positions. Today, people get therapy to improve their sex lives, brag openly about their sexual conquests, and have frank discussions with one another about each other's sexual preferences. That repression is over--to the dismay of some and to the delight of others.

Today, a new psychological repression hides in plain sight. It is the servant of a modern ideology, a religion really, that says the material world is soulless and merely fodder for economic growth. This repression prevents most from seeing our ecological predicament and therefore from understanding it or acting in response to it. This repression is of the very physical world about us and the vast and complex interconnections which govern our lives and the life of the planet.

Our psyche is now programmed to register the physical world as a substrate for our fantasies of dominion and mastery, but rarely as a master to us. The fantasy is that humans are in one category and nature in another, a nature that is very much subservient to our wishes.

A subset of this repression is the difficulty in talking about the vulnerability of an energy system that relies for more than 80 percent of its energy on finite fossil fuels. A friend of mine related a conversation with an engineer who disputed that oil is a finite resource. My friend being clever and patient got the engineer to agree that the Earth is a sphere and that it has a calculable volume. He then got the engineer to agree that that volume is finite, and that oil, being a subset of the Earth's volume, must also be finite. The engineer had never thought about the issue that way. And, neither have most people on the planet as astonishing as that may seem. But, it's really no wonder since they've been propagandized by a constant advertising and public relations juggernaut from the fossil fuel industry saying (or more likely deceptively implying) things which cannot on their face be true.

An understanding of the finite nature of fossil fuels is a prerequisite to discussing, for example, how much of the oil that the Earth's crust does contain is actually available to society, at what cost and whether society can bear that cost. And yet, until recently the well-trained engineer mentioned above had never thought very deeply about a topic central to the functioning of modern civilization. Now, that's repression. Fortunately, the one-on-one therapy intervention performed by my friend was successful in lifting the repression and opening the way for a more informed discussion.

But how might we lift a repression that is embedded in the entire culture? Yes, culture. Another friend of mine once tried to explain to me that the consumption of oil is a culturally determined act. I am only now beginning to see what he means, and I have little to suggest to overcome the repression that I see. The history of societies with highly consequential repressions--ones related to things central to their existence and which, if not lifted, threaten their survival--these societies often destroy themselves. Nazi Germany comes to mind. Also, Jared Diamond's Collapse and Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies which catalogue societies that repressed the obvious signs of collapse until it was too late.

Today, so many of the optimistic pronouncements about our human future have to do with technological advancements. But technology runs on energy. Critics will respond that technology will help us find the energy we need for our supposedly inevitable post-work society. This is merely an assertion of faith. It assumes that energy consumption can continue to grow exponentially for many decades if not centuries. Yet, with more than 80 percent of our energy currently coming from finite fossil fuels, there is no clear path to replace them completely--especially when it comes to liquid fuels for transportation and agriculture.

But the assertion that technology will give us the energy we need also gets things backwards. The scientific revolution of the 17th century brought us a new way of looking at nature, a way that revealed many of its secrets. The ingredients that made speedy technical progress and exponential economic growth possible, however, were the discovery and use of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, and then natural gas.

These dense, cheap sources of energy made it possible for many people to leave the increasingly mechanized and productive farm to seek employment in emerging industries powered by fossil fuels and pioneered by scientists and engineers who now had the luxury of time to work on inventions and refinements of previous inventions--rather than toiling in farm fields or mines. Energy first, technology second.

Without the enormous surplus of energy offered to us by the world's coal mines and oil and gas fields, most all of us would be back on the land toiling for a living growing food. For the moment, vast armies of engineers, scientists and technicians, often laboring in teams, continue to work on our technological future without any seeming worry about where the food to feed them or the energy to power their lives at home and at work will come from.

They should worry, and they should discuss. But if both the physical world as an agent in our lives and the energy we extract from it are repressed, then discussion becomes impossible. Limits cannot be discussed in polite company any more because the subject is too disturbing and unmannerly. In many circles it is actually forbidden.

Neo-classical economists--the kind that inhabit Wall Street and Washington and control most academic economics departments--treat the physical world as a candy store open 24/7 and always overflowing with what we want, in the quantities we need at the prices we like. If the store runs out of gumballs, then we'll just switch to candy canes without any serious interruption. Any discussion of limits is usually met with calls to quickly shut down the person bringing them up. That there can be no limits is simply an article of faith and articles of faith cannot be challenged without serious consequences.

So, how to lift this repression? One-on-one therapy can be effective. It was in the case I cited. But we need to work faster than that. Literature, movies, art and music can reach people in ways that rational discourse cannot. They can reflect new realities in visceral ways that allow people to see anew. Beyond this there is the catharsis of a tragedy, a real-life emergency that changes people's perceptions profoundly. The California drought comes to mind.

Unfortunately, it is the real-life tragedies that seem to work best to lift repressions. And, I think we're in for a lot of those tragedies. In the meantime, those who've awakened from the repression of our age can prepare themselves and their friends and families as much as is possible for the changes ahead. And, they can be ready to offer an alternate view when tragedy strikes about what to do next--beyond simply trying to return to business-as-usual.

By the way, haven't we been trying to return to business-as-usual since the crash of 2008 with great difficulty? The physical world which imposes its limits acts like dark matter on our economy, invisible (to most), but creating unmistakable effects. The record high average daily prices for oil--the world's most important energy source--prices which lasted from 2011 through most of 2014, created a huge headwind for the world economy. Economist James Hamilton noted that 10 out of the last 11 recessions have been preceded by an oil price spike. And yet, the economic weakness we see around the world today is rarely linked to previously high oil prices.

When you repress something, it almost always comes back to bite you. Climate change is already doing that. Fossil fuel depletion which is at the root of the record oil price spike of 2008 and the record high prices of 2011 through 2014 has already done it.

Where is Dr. Freud when you need him?

Review: Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse by Carolyn Baker

Originally posted on

Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive

Written by Community Solutions Conference Speaker, Carolyn Baker

229 pp. North Atlantic Books – Mar. 2015. $16.95.

Reviewed by Frank Kaminski

Dr. Carolyn Baker is a profound thinker on the predicament of modern industrial civilization who comes at the subject from an invaluable perspective. Whereas many of her contemporaries focus only on the logistical details of collapse preparation, she draws on a background in psychology and psychotherapy to address how we should prepare emotionally and spiritually for what is ahead. Since about 15 years ago, when she first became aware of our resources crisis, she has devoted her life to helping others make what she calls the "inner transition." She's written books, spoken internationally, conducted workshops, life coached, hosted a radio show and otherwise made herself an indispensable resource to those seeking guidance through the terrain of inner transition.

In her latest book, titled Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse, Baker surveys 16 relationships that she's found to be basic to human well-being but sorely in need of tending right now. They range from the obvious examples of romantic love, friendship and parent-child relationships, to the links that connect humans to all other life forms and the ties each person has to the "psychic darkness" of his or her inner shadow (to use terms from Jungian psychology). Perhaps the best indication of how broadly Baker defines love relationships is an epigraph at the beginning of the book attributed to theologian and author Father Richard Rohr: "All of creation is relationship."

Even so, the type of relationship most people will think of when they first pick up the book is that between romantic partners. The cover image, which shows a young man and woman embracing tightly as they survey a bleak, smoking industrial landscape, suggests a sense of solace in the company of a significant other. Thus it's appropriate that the first chapter deals with loving, living and preparing with a life partner. Specifically, it is about doing these things with a reluctant partner.

Baker has a great deal of wisdom when it comes to this all-too-familiar dilemma for collapse preppers and those who love them. She's helped many couples in this plight either work it out or realize that it can't be resolved, so she knows how agonizing it is for both parties. The prepping partner often feels belittled by his or her non-prepping partner, while the non-prepper is embarrassed by the prepper's seemingly kooky behavior, and can often feel lonely and neglected. The only way to make progress in addressing the situation is for each person to refrain from imposing his or her viewpoint on the other (a futile effort) and instead work on communicating emotions. In her discussion of this process, Baker provides sample scripts and exercises that she's assigned to couples in therapy.

The second type of relationship examined is that between parents and their children. Baker admits that her work has been mostly with adults, but says she's still been able to glean valuable insight into how to introduce children to collapse-related topics through talking with concerned parents. Based on these conversations, as well as research she's done, she has come up with guidelines tailored to different age groups. One fact I found particularly interesting is the tendency of elders to underestimate young people's ability to handle knowledge of harsh realities. Baker quotes one father to the effect that children can deal with serious issues much better than we think they can, and that when we discuss such things with them, it makes them feel we trust them.

The author is a fount of firsthand knowledge on tending relationships with others in a community. Having spent years coaching collapse preppers on cultivating community, and on forming intentional communities in which to weather crisis, she knows well the work required. (For the purposes of her discussion, Baker defines community as "trusted others living in the same vicinity or region.") Baker sagely advises that when first trying to interest fellow community members in preparation efforts, it's best not to talk about peak oil, climate change or any of the other abstract dimensions to our crisis, since these are divisive issues that many people will be unwilling to consider. Instead, try beginning a dialog about how everyone might, say, deal with an emergency situation or reap the economic benefits of an all-solar-powered neighborhood.

In addition to its futility, there's another reason why trying to impose one's views about collapse onto others is a waste of time: It isn't necessary. If you're working to solarize your neighborhood or shift its food supply to local, organic consumption, for example, you don't need everyone involved to agree that without these measures there will be catastrophic electricity and food shortages. You just need to demonstrate what each person has to gain from the effort. Many participants will doubtless be motivated simply by a desire to break their reliance on an aging, overburdened power grid or to eat food free of toxic pesticides, but in the process they'll unwittingly be helping ready the community for the inevitable descent.

The relationships examined so far are ones that most people will be able to relate to easily. Less obvious relationships covered by Baker include those with our bodies, our creative souls, the food and other resources we consume, the beauty around us and the present moment. Baker also looks at human-animal attachments and how people in industrial society relate to loss and grief. On this last front, she argues that our tendency to keep sorrow private has made us a culture suffering from "congestive heart failure," in that our pent-up emotion reduces our capacity for caring and compassion.

Coming to terms with one's mortality is, of course, a classic manifestation of grief, and Baker contends that this is the task now before us as a species facing the prospect of its own near-term extinction (NTE). The case for NTE, driven by runaway climate change, has grown overwhelming in recent years, prompting Baker to recommend the adoption of an "attitude of hospice" in which to prepare for the final phase of our collective earthly existence. Just as many hospice patients report living the most precious parts of their lives at the very end, so too might we all discover unprecedented meaning as we cross over into our mutual abyss.

A longtime scholar of Jungian psychology, Baker draws on Jung's notion of the human shadow in much of her work, including this book. She sums up the shadow as "any part of ourselves we say is not me. We look at an addict and say, 'That's not me,' refusing to recognize that some part of us is or could become an addict." For Baker, getting in touch with one's inner shadow is a crucial part of maintaining harmonious relationships in the external world. The process can be likened to cultivating the internal community within the psyche so as to be better prepared for engaging with the outside community. Among the reasons why shadow work is important is that it makes us less apt to project the dark aspects of ourselves onto others and helps ward against harm from those who may have duplicitous motives–i.e., "shady" parts to their character that would go unnoticed without careful attention to the shadow world.

This book contains many proofs for Baker's tenet that inner work is as important as outer work when preparing for collapse, but one in particular is my favorite. It's an excerpt in which Baker reveals that while her methods have been called "too touchy-feely," the same people who issue this dismissal often come back to her for help when their efforts to do things by other means have failed. For example, people who have disregarded her advice about improving their interpersonal skills have lived to regret it when intentional communities they've attempted to start have come to grief because of communication and conflict resolution issues.

A note is in order on the use of the word apocalypse in the book's title. Today, when people see this word, they usually think of the countless end time scenarios depicted in doomsday films. However, Baker uses the term in its original sense: a disclosure of something previously hidden. She believes we're approaching a rite of passage that will reveal to us our true place in nature, and perhaps even transform us into a new breed of human being. The "Enlightenment Enculturation" that has tricked us into thinking we're separate from nature, by emphasizing logic over intuition and objectifying living systems as "resources," will give way to a truly enlightened perspective. This new outlook will be far more in keeping with the beliefs of indigenous cultures around the world that view all living beings as connected.

My one criticism of Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse is that its cover undersells it. The image of two young lovers huddling together amidst calamity is a powerful one, to be sure, but it also invites the misconception that the book deals solely with romantic love. As this review has shown, Baker's focus is vastly more encompassing. Still, I hardly know what would be a better image, and anyway this is a minor quibble with an otherwise insightful and highly accessible book.

If Everyone Lived in an ‘Ecovillage’, the Earth Would Still Be in Trouble

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander

We are used to hearing that if everyone lived in the same way as North Americans or Australians, we would need four or five planet Earths to sustain us.

This sort of analysis is known as the “ecological footprint” and shows that even the so-called “green” western European nations, with their more progressive approaches to renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport, would require more than three planets.

How can we live within the means of our planet? When we delve seriously into this question it becomes clear that almost all environmental literature grossly underestimates what is needed for our civilisation to become sustainable.

Only the brave should read on.

The ‘ecological footprint’ analysis

In order to explore the question of what “one planet living” would look like, let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most prominent metric for environmental accounting – the ecological footprint analysis. This was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, then at the University of British Columbia, and is now institutionalised by the scientific body, The Global Footprint Network, of which Wackernagel is president.

This method of environmental accounting attempts to measure the amount of productive land and water a given population has available to it, and then evaluates the demands that population makes upon those ecosystems. A sustainable society is one that operates within the carrying capacity of its dependent ecosystems.

While this form of accounting is not without its critics – it is certainly not an exact science – the worrying thing is that many of its critics actually claim that it underestimates humanity’s environmental impact. Even Wackernagel, the concept’s co-originator, is convinced the numbers are underestimates.

According to the most recent data from the Global Footprint Network, humanity as a whole is currently in ecological overshoot, demanding one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. As the global population continues its trend toward 11 billion people, and while the growth fetishcontinues to shape the global economy, the extent of overshoot is only going to increase.

Every year this worsening state of ecological overshoot persists, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

The footprint of an ecovillage

As I have noted, the basic contours of environmental degradation are relatively well known. What is far less widely known, however, is that even the world’s most successful and long-lasting ecovillages have yet to attain a “fair share” ecological footprint.

Take the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for example, probably the most famous ecovillage in the world. An ecovillage can be broadly understood as an “intentional community” that forms with the explicit aim of living more lightly on the planet. Among other things, the Findhorn community has adopted an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, produces renewable energy and makes many of their houses out of mud or reclaimed materials.

Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland. Irenicrhonda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland. Irenicrhonda/FlickrCC BY-NC-ND

An ecological footprint analysis was undertaken of this community. It was discovered that even the committed efforts of this ecovillage still left the Findhorn community consuming resources and emitting waste far in excess of what could be sustained if everyone lived in this way. (Part of the problem is that the community tends to fly as often as the ordinary Westerner, increasing their otherwise small footprint.)

Put otherwise, based on my calculations, if the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, we would still need one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. Dwell on that for a moment.

I do not share this conclusion to provoke despair, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity. Nor do I share this to criticise the noble and necessary efforts of the ecovillage movement, which clearly is doing far more than most to push the frontiers of environmental practice.

Rather, I share this in the hope of shaking the environmental movement, and the broader public, awake. With our eyes open, let us begin by acknowledging that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.

In a full world of seven billion people and counting, a “fair share” ecological footprint means reducing our impacts to a small fraction of what they are today. Such fundamental change to our ways of living is incompatible with a growth-oriented civilisation.

Some people may find this this position too “radical” to digest, but I would argue that this position is merely shaped by an honest review of the evidence.

What would ‘one planet’ living look like?

Even after five or six decades of the modern environmental movement, it seems we still do not have an example of how to thrive within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Nevertheless, just as the basic problems can be sufficiently well understood, the nature of an appropriate response is also sufficiently clear, even if the truth is sometimes confronting.

We must swiftly transition to systems of renewable energy, recognising that the feasibility and affordability of this transition will demand that we consume significantly less energy than we have become accustomed to in the developed nations. Less energy means less producing and consuming.

We must grow our food organically and locally, and eat considerably less (or no) meat. We must ride our bikes more and fly less, mend our clothes, share resources, radically reduce our waste streams and creatively “retrofit the suburbs” to turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. In doing so, we must challenge ourselves to journey beyond the ecovillage movement and explore an even deeper green shade of sustainability.

Among other things, this means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency. Unpopular though it is to say, we must also have fewer children, or else our species will grow itself into a catastrophe.

But personal action is not enough. We must restructure our societies to support and promote these “simpler” ways of living. Appropriate technology must also assist us on the transition to one planet living. Some argue that technology will allow us to continue living in the same way while also greatly reducing our footprint.

However, the extent of “dematerialisation” required to make our ways of living sustainable is simply too great. As well as improving efficiency, we also need to live more simply in a material sense, and re-imagine the good life beyond consumer culture.

First and foremost, what is needed for one planet living is for the richest nations, including Australia, to initiate a “degrowth” process of planned economic contraction.

I do not claim that this is likely or that I have a detailed blueprint for how it should transpire. I only claim that, based on the ecological footprint analysis, degrowth is the most logical framework for understanding the radical implications of sustainability.

Can the descent from consumerism and growth be prosperous? Can we turn our overlapping crises into opportunities?

These are the defining questions of our time.

Can Free Trade Agreements Be Consistent With Climate Change Mitigation?

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Bob Brecha

Protecting society against the worst impacts of climate change necessarily means making difficult decisions for the future. One of the potential areas of conflict will be between the "owners" of the global environmental and atmospheric commons (that is, all of us), and owners of natural resources whose use can negatively impact the commons. The concern is that free trade agreements could elevate the rights of possession of fossil fuel resources above that of mitigating climate change.

One of the truly novel sections of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was the discussion of a carbon budget in the volume on the Physical Science Basis of Climate Change. The carbon budget concept was first proposed several years ago (here and here and here) after it became clear that climate models gave a robust result that serves to simplify the discussion of climate change mitigation strategies: the amount of global average surface warming, relative to the late 19th century, is roughly proportional to the total amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. That is, if you are given evidence that a certain temperature threshold should not be breached, then it is possible to read from a graph how much CO2 can be emitted over all time. 

As a first good estimate, cumulative CO2 emitted into the atmosphere maps directly onto temperature change. Having a 2/3 likelihood of remaining below 2°C by the end of the century (and beyond), total cumulative emissions can be about 3000 Gt CO2. We have already used up approximately 2000 Gt CO2 since the 19th century (80 percent of that in the past fifty years!), so our remaining budget is 1000 Gt CO2, or 25 to 30 years' worth at current consumption rates.

Why is this concept so important? To answer this question we can look at data for how much coal, natural gas and oil are in the ground. Just using up quantities declared as property by either private corporations or national energy companies would result in CO2 emissions of at least 3000 Gt (billion tonnes) of CO2.

There are many important practical questions to ask about how we as a global community will choose to deal with this question of leaving fossil fuels in the ground. An interesting impulse to this conversation has been given by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si, in which he speaks of the environment, the atmosphere and the earth's climate as parts of the global commons. While this language is not new, the encyclical (and here a particularly good commentary on its implications) discusses in strikingly clear language the competing views of how concepts of public and private property can come into conflict with one another. Instead, we must make trade-offs between how to use different resources, and, in the end, set frameworks for property rights that serve to keep us within the boundaries set by natural planetary systems.

This brings us to the issue of free-trade agreements. Currently dozens of nations are in the midst of negotiations to create additional regions of reduced trade barriers. In contrast to earlier free-trade agreements that often focused on tariffs, these new trade agreements (Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP) are much more wide-ranging. A key question that arises is that of adjudication of property rights and the direct or indirect expropriation of property. The arbiter of any such disputes falls under the mandate of the "Investor-State Dispute Settlement" (ISDS) mechanism in which arbitration panels independent of any national judicial system can hear and make binding decisions. 

Proponents of TPP and TTIP claim that there are many safeguards for environmental regulations written into the agreements (here and here). Opponents say that there are too many loopholes in the agreements, and that the negotiations, as well as the ISDS mechanism, is too secretive and therefore undermines democratic principles (here and here). Two examples under existing agreements serve to illustrate the potential for future disputes about climate change policies. 

Under NAFTA's Article 1110 (Expropriation and Compensation)

"No Party may directly or indirectly nationalize or expropriate an investment of an investor of another Party in its territory or take a measure tantamount to nationalization or expropriation of such an investment ("expropriation"), except: (a) for a public purpose; (b) on a non-discriminatory basis; (c) in accordance with due process of law ...; and (d) on payment of compensation ..."

Note especially the first exception, "public purpose." In a case brought against the Canadian federal government, a U.S. Company, Lone Pine Resources, claims the National Assembly of Quebec violated NAFTA by passing a bill in 2011 that revoked mineral exploration permits near the St. Lawrence River. However the details of the case play out (it is still pending), it is the position of Lone Pine that the Assembly's decision to ban fracking and protect the watershed was "an uncompensated expropriation that lacks a public purpose." This case is being closely watched, and should Lone Pine's position prevail, it would be a deeply worrisome case of private fossil-fuel property rights trumping the protection of the global commons.

A second case involves the Swedish energy company Vattenfall and the German government. Vattenfall owns and operates lignite strip-mines and power plants, but also nuclear power plants. After the 2011 Fukushima tsunami and subsequent decision in Germany to remove nuclear power from its electricity mix over the next decade, two of the Vattenfall nuclear power plants were permanently closed, after having been periodically offline for extended periods prior to that time. Vattenfall is suing the German government for nearly four billion Euros, with the case being handled by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), not a German national court, which is where other utilities are bringing similar claims. 

In principle there are environmental (and labor) protections built into free-trade agreements. The question is whether the balance of power in tribunals with no democratic oversight or connections to civil society will be in favor of corporate entities able to name specific financial sums they believe have been "taken," or more vaguely-formulated promises to protect the environment. Most of the cases to date have been small potatoes, relatively speaking. The 2000 Gt of buried potential CO2 held as reserves on the books of companies and nations would have a value of over $100 trillion. Economists would like to see a price on carbon as a means of reducing emissions. Given the uncertainties of how free trade agreements might be enforced, would it even be possible to enact a carbon price or other policies that would indirectly devalue fossil-fuel resources? 

The best way to avoid this whole issue is for all of us to work quickly to stop using fossil fuels, decreasing demand and thereby reduce toward zero the value of this resource. That would help keep it in the ground, and even a free-trade agreement can't allow corporations to sue individuals for choosing not to use their product.

Lab rats and the corruption of how we count

originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

There's an old joke about lab rats in which the teller says he or she secretly suspects that all lab rats are prone to cancer and so all research about the risk of cancer in humans based on tests in rats is likely useless.

The Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering, a European-based research group, thought it would look into such a possibility.

Last week the group released its findings and that joke became a reality. The diet fed to most lab rats is so laced with pesticides, heavy metals, genetically engineered feed and other man-made contaminants that lab rats worldwide are indeed at much higher risk of developing cancer and other diseases and disabilities just from the food they are reared on.

This doesn't necessarily mean that certain substances thought likely to cause cancer in rats and possibly humans now somehow don't. Rather, the study calls into question practically all safety tests which rely on these rodents. And, in fact, it suggests that the dangers of many substances and genetically engineered plants may have been underplayed.

The researchers point out that some studies purporting to demonstrate the safety of genetically engineered foods fed significant amounts of such GE foods to control groups of rats. These rats should not have gotten any GE food in order that their health profile could be compared accurately to those intentionally fed GE food.

And, even if the rats in the control groups don't ingest the chemical or plant being tested--as is the case in a proper study--they still get sick at abnormally high rates due to their diet. That can make substances being tested appear safer than they truly are because it is more difficult to sort out which effects in the test group are due to the substance or plant being tested.

The butcher's thumb on the scale has long been a metaphor for skewing results of laboratory tests and public surveys. And today, there are so many opportunities for "the thumb on the scale." This matters because it is difficult to know what to believe in a world that is so complex that we are obliged to rely on experts for much of our understanding about how the natural and human-built worlds work and interact.

This week we were treated to the good news that the U.S. unemployment rate dipped to a cheery 5.3 percent. But what's called the participation rate--the percentage of working-age people employed in the work force--hit its lowest level since 1977. So, fewer people looking for work in part accounted for the lower unemployment rate. This suggests that there are still a lot of people having difficulty getting work. The all-inclusive U-6 number--composed of those who've given up looking for work (so-called "discouraged workers"), those working part time who want to work full time, and those who've simply disappeared from the unemployment rolls after benefits ran out--that number stands at 10.5 percent.

Changing the definition of what we count without making that change clear to the public is always a promising tactic among those who would like to mislead us. As I have again and again pointed out, the way we count barrels of oil in the world is seriously flawed for two reasons. First, we count a number substances which are not oil. The marketplace is wise to this, for while governments and companies count these non-oil substances as supplies, companies cannot sell them on the world market as oil.

Second, we treat estimates of "resources" of oil which are based on very sketchy evidence as if these resources will be ready and available to humans whenever we need them at the quantities we want and prices we like. This infographic from the otherwise sensible Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claims that humans have access to 24 trillion barrels of "oil" (a word which must now be placed in quotes). We've consumed about 1 trillion so far. That 24 trillion barrels presumably amounts to a 500-year supply.

But the truth is in the fine print. Some 6.5 trillion barrels are labeled as "technically recoverable." This means they are not necessarily deemed "economically recovered." Only a small fraction of such resources will ever be extracted due to cost and logistical constraints. This number includes a substantial amount of oil from oil shale(actually from kerogen) for which there is no known economically viable extraction method. It is instructive that actual worldwide reserves of "oil" from oil shale currently stand at precisely zero.

Only Estonia has made consistent use of oil shale by simply burning its abundant deposits directly to make electricity. Efforts to extract unsubsidized liquid fuels from oil shale have so far proven elusive.

The 24 trillion barrel number is even more sketchy as it is called "oil in place." This includes hasty and poorly supported estimates for which there is typically no drilling data at all (except for the tiny fraction--1.6 trillion--that represents known "reserves," a much more rigorously supported number).

Only an even tinier fraction of the remaining oil in place will ever be produced. To date about 35 percent of all exploited oil in place has been extracted. That was the easy stuff. The number falls precipitously to 5 to 10 percent for unconventional oil such as tar sands and tight oil for which there are known economically viable extraction technologies.

Everything else beyond that is just fantasy. We should remember that for more than a century, people have been trying to figure out how to get "oil" economically out of so-called oil shale of which there are huge deposits in the American West. We are still waiting for a breakthrough.

Moreover, none of these estimates tell us at what RATE we might get these resources out. And as I have pointed out again and again, rate is the most important number. You may inherit a million dollars. But if the trust controlling those dollars limits you to withdrawals of $500 a month, you will never live like a millionaire. We are all living like "oil millionaires" in the modern age because of the rate at which we've been able to withdraw oil from the ground. There is no guarantee that this rate can climb continuously, and, in fact, the growth of the rate of extraction has slowed dramatically in the last decade as we now seek out more difficult-to-get sources of oil.

The numbers that come our way are calculated and disseminated by people who have an agenda. It may be to be as objective as they can be given the constraints under which they labor. It may be to satisfy the views of financial supporters of a think tank or university research laboratory. The information may be intentionally skewed so as to deceive us (even if there are no outright lies). Or the information may simply be mistaken.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of several bestselling books on risk, says that a good rule of thumb is as follows: If the numbers come from somebody wearing a tie (Wall Street economist or analyst, industry public relations department, captive think tank academic and so on), you ought to be very skeptical. By design messages from these people are intended to move markets, move merchandise and/or move public policy and are not a comment on the state of the physical universe.

If, however, the person telling you the numbers is not wearing a tie (a physicist or chemist, for instance), then it is more likely that you are getting numbers based on the physical realities of the universe that are open to inspection and verification by anyone with the necessary skills and equipment.

(With women, who don't typically wear ties, but are now in positions to give us both useful and skewed numbers, we need to include warnings for numbers which come from women in business suits versus those more informally dressed, especially if they come from the hard sciences.)

It's not that we should never accept numbers and use them to guide our work and life. It's that we should always be on the lookout for the not-so-hidden agenda behind those numbers and make our own determinations and adjustments as necessary.

Why the Pope's Encyclical Laudato Si is Important for Non-Catholics

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Bob Brecha

One form of the Golden Rule is that people should treat others in ways they would like to be treated themselves. In one form or another, this is an idea that belongs to virtually every religious tradition, and can also be seen as a fundamental principle of how humans organize themselves societally. 

In the case of climate change and other environmental issues addressed in the pope's encyclical, people of all creeds can use the Golden Rule to consider how we treat the environment today will affect society tomorrow and beyond. 

We emit carbon dioxide today, and sea-level rises slowly over decades or centuries. Emissions here (in wealthier countries, historically) affect people there (poorer countries with less capability for adaptation) who probably will suffer the severest consequences first. Regardless of religion, people for the most part think about what kind of world they wish to leave for their children or great-grandchildren. 

The Vatican isn't alone in making a case that, for the continued stability and progress of societies, we must modify the way we think about development and the environment. A globalized world cannot simply be reduced to liberalizing market transactions. Given ecological and material limits, we must recognize basic rights to food, shelter and health care; learn to measure well-being in something other than monetary terms; and remedy growing inequality, while at the same time mitigating and adapting to a changing climate. Grassroots movements in the U.S. and around the world are increasingly active in these arenas as witnessed by the Climate March last September, the Occupy Movement, the Divestment Movement, the opposition by two million Europeans to the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU and many more. 

Pope Francis will frame the need to mitigate climate change in theological terms that follow his religious tradition and will reach more than one billion adherents around the world Laudato Si will also follow a decades-old tradition of papal statements expressing solidarity with the poor and the need to care for creation. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in 2009: "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa." But the deep-seated and simple message is the one that most of us learn as we grow up, independent of faith (or non-faith) tradition -- the Golden Rule.

Laudato Si will be an important tool for motivating Catholics, as well as those of other religious faiths, charging all to take seriously the challenge of climate change. More broadly, this encyclical can be seen as a reflection of these times and how they are being read by a younger generation not satisfied with playing by the rules of their parents -- rules that served some purposes well, but have also created failures and serious problems this generation must deal with as they come to important decision-making positions. 

We are fortunate humankind has been able to use its intellectual capacity to understand the looming threat of climate change. The very secular Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2013 report, summarized it this way, "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." This formulation translates into a 95 percent likelihood, according to the unanimous approval of that language by government representatives to the IPCC from around the world, that our species has become a critical force of nature changing the very character of our planet. During just my lifetime of 54 years, we have been responsible for more than three-quarters of total historical carbon dioxide emissions. That is, our influence on the climate and other parts of the earth system is growing rapidly. Scientists at the end of the 19th century had already projected that large changes in CO2 concentrations would cause temperatures to rise; they just did not really believe we would be able to actually put as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we have since done.

Our understanding of the earth's climate system has improved and the world has seen a remarkable surge in renewable energy production during the past few decades. Costs of solar photovoltaics, wind turbines and batteries for storage have decreased dramatically, and installations of these technologies, as well as concentrating solar power, geothermal, solar thermal have all increased. Progress is being made in developing, implementing and linking information technology capabilities with renewables to help solve some of the challenges of in transforming our energy systems. We are seeing the beginning shifts in transportation, toward electrification as well as increases in the use of bicycles, public transportation as well as car-sharing and ride-sharing models. Local food systems are booming, creating many side benefits beyond the potential for reduction in carbon emissions.

In the case of climate change, the key issue is how we expand and internalize the notion of the Golden Rule to take into account other parts of nature as integral to our well-being, and how we evolve our capacity for thinking over greater spatial scales and longer time spans. 

Regardless of belief system, we must now continue to push our intellects and our hearts to internalize the empathy for others called for by the Golden Rule -- for those both elsewhere and in future generations -- and act accordingly.

Introduction to 'Prosperous Descent'

Originally posted on

Written By Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander

I sometimes tell my students that I am an ‘apocaloptimist’. While, in truth, I am neither apocalyptic nor optimistic, this neologism serves as a fruitful conversation starter. It allows me to begin stating the case for why we, the human species, are facing overlapping crises of unprecedented magnitude – crises that are threatening the very persistence of our civilisation. At the same time, I explain why all of these problems are of our own making and, indeed, that their solutions already exist and are within our grasp, if only we decide that solving them is seriously what we want. I also maintain that the process of solving or at least responding appropriately to these problems can be both meaningful and fulfilling, if only we are prepared to let go of dominant conceptions of the good life. This means embracing very different ways of living, while also re-structuring our societies to support a very different set of values – especially the values of frugality, moderation, and sufficiency. In short, I argue that the problems we face today are as grave as the solutions are available and attractive, and this tension is reflected in the title of this book – PROSPEROUS DESCENT – which I use provocatively to signify a paradox whose meaning will be unpacked in the following pages and chapters.

Before outlining the content of the following chapters, let me introduce some of the basic themes which shape all the essays collected in this book (and its companion volume, SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY). To begin with, I take a global perspective, even if my focus is generally on the cultures and economies prevalent in what are called the ‘developed’ nations. One of the normative assumptions underlying the essays is that we, human beings, are not citizens of any particular nation-state, the borders of which are artificial constructs of limited moral relevance. Rather, I contend that we are, as Diogenes claimed long ago, ‘citizens of the cosmos’, members of a global community of life, today more so than ever before. Our moral obligations, therefore – our commitments to justice and sustainability, in particular – cannot and should not stop at the borders of our own communities or our own nations. Justice and sustainability are global, seemingly abstract challenges demanding a global perspective, even if our actions and interventions must inevitably be local and concrete. 

In globalising one’s perspective, however, one is inevitability radicalised. As soon as we start asking questions about what a just distribution of the world’s resources would look like, or what material standard of living could be universalised on our already overburdened planet, it immediately becomes clear that justice and sustainability, if these fuzzy notions are to mean anything, require nothing short of a revolution of the existing order of things. As this book will argue, 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 ecological 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. Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined, creative challenge we face in coming decades – which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal. Together we must write a new future, a task that has already begun as individuals and communities begin to build the new world within the shell of the old. But this new future must look radically different from the past if the crises we face are to be tolerably resolved. There are no prizes, of course, for being the most ‘radical’ theorist or movement, yet if evidence, ethical reflection, and logic all demand a radical position, then as a matter of intellectual integrity, radical we must be – even if it is unclear why a position should be called ‘radical’ if the forces of reason and evidence are on our side. Such is the state of things.

Today there are unfathomable amounts of wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of super-rich elites, while great multitudes of our fellow human beings live lives of humiliating destitution. Early in 2014, for example, it was reported that the richest 85 people today have as much accumulated wealth as the poorest half of humanity. This is not ‘civilisation’ as I understand the term. Nothing – no amount of fancy theorising – can justify such a skewed distribution of wealth and power, nor can this distribution be passed off as a ‘natural’ outcome of free individuals operating within free markets. It would be more accurate to say it is the natural outcome of unfree individuals operating within unfree markets. The current distribution of wealth and power, both within nations and between them, is a function of decisions human beings have made about how to structure our economies and political systems, and one does not need a fancy moral or political theory to conclude that the existing distribution, shaped by the existing, globalised economy, is shamefully unjust. It is self-evidently, painfully, and hideously unjust, even if usually we divert our eyes from this distasteful reality, it being too difficult to dwell on for long. Nevertheless, the point is that if human beings made these oppressive and destructive systems, so too can we unmake them and remake them into different systems, better systems, more humane systems – if we commit ourselves to that enormous task.

Our challenges, however, go well beyond distributional questions and call on us to rethink contemporary understandings of ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘sustainability’, and even the meaning of ‘civilisation’ itself. What does it mean to be ‘civilised’ today? What is it that we want sustained? How will we sustain those things? At what cost? And for whom? Sustainability must not be conceived of as the project of sustaining anything resembling the status quo, although that is a common assumption and, indeed, it currently defines the international development agenda. The high consumption way of life which is enjoyed by the richest one or two billion people on Earth, and which is widely celebrated as the peak of civilisation, simply cannot, due to ecological limits, be universalised to the world’s seven billion people, let alone the eight, or nine, or ten billion people that are expected to inhabit the planet in coming decades. What are the implications of this ecological impossibility? When we ask ourselves what way of life would be consistent with a ‘fair share’ of the world’s finite resources, it quickly becomes evident that a just and sustainable civilisation must not seek to universalise the high impact consumer way of life. That would be ecologically catastrophic – a catastrophe that is, however, in the process of unfolding as conventional modes of ‘sustainable development’ are pursued tragically into the future. 

If the global population is to live safely within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet, we must be prepared – especially those of us in the developed regions of the world – to reimagine the good life by embracing ‘simpler ways’ of living based on notions of moderation, frugality, appropriate technology, and sufficiency. These notions are rarely discussed in mainstream environmental literature, and they are unspeakable by our politicians, yet I hope to show that they are indispensable to the proper understanding of our predicament and signify our only way out of it. If once it was thought that technology would ‘save the day’, producing efficiencies that would allow a growing global population to live high consumption lifestyles while remaining within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet, today it is increasingly clear that such techno-optimism lacks all evidential credibility. Universal affluence is nice in theory, perhaps, or perhaps not even nice in theory. But empirically, the promise of technological salvation has failed us. Despite decades of extraordinary technological advance, the ecological burdens humanity places on nature continue to increase. The face of Gaia is vanishing. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost. 

Although there is a demonstrable ecological imperative to embrace simpler lifestyles of moderate consumption, there are, fortunately, many reasons to think that such lifestyles would actually be in our immediate self-interest. As will be seen, evidence indicates that even those who have attained the consumerist ideal so often find that it does not satisfy them, suggesting that human beings just do not find consumption a source of much fulfillment – despite what the advertisements insist. Most people living in consumer cultures today are materially richer than at any other time in history, yet too many of us also tend to be poor in time, poor in community engagement, and lack an intimate connection with nature. Our wealth is dubious. It has come at too high a price.

Human beings all have basic biophysical needs, of course, that must be met in order for us to flourish, but not far beyond those basic needs it seems that consumption has fast diminishing marginal returns. The never-ending pursuit of affluence is like a treadmill on which we keep running without advancing, eventually becoming a zero-sum game of ‘status competition’ which degrades the planet while distracting us from more worthy pursuits. And so the logic of sufficiency is clear: we must step off that consumerist treadmill for ecological reasons, and we should step off it for social justice reasons, but we should want to step off it because if we transcend consumer culture we will discover that there are simply more fulfilling ways to live. Consumerism is a tragic failure of the human imagination. Certainly, we can do much better. 

This book holds up ‘simple living’ or ‘voluntary simplicity’ as the most coherent alternative to consumerism. I use these terms not to imply crudely regressing to old ways of living but instead to imply post-consumerist ways of living. These ways of living would weave together the best human innovations and traditions but use these knowledges and practices to create low-impact lifestyles of moderate consumption, which are nevertheless rich in their non-material dimensions. Although this way of life defies simplistic definition, practically it can mean growing organic food in backyards or urban farms, or supporting local farmers’ markets; it can mean wearing second-hand clothes or mending existing items, and creating or making necessary goods out of recycled materials rather than always acquiring them new; it can mean purchasing solar panels or supporting renewable energy initiatives, while also radically reducing household energy consumption by riding a bike, taking public transport, co-housing, or simply using a washing line instead of a dryer. A process not a destination, the practical implications of voluntary simplicity are endless, which presents us with an immensely creative challenge, especially in consumer cultures. It implies the general attempt to minimise wasteful and superfluous consumption, sharing what we have, and knowing how much is ‘enough’, all the while redirecting life’s vital energies toward non-materialist sources of meaning and fulfillment, such as friends and family, social engagement, creative activity, home production, meeting our civic duties, or exploring whatever one’s private passions might be. The fundamental premise of this book – of all my work – is that a simple life can be a good life. 

Nevertheless, although I argue that true sustainability certainly implies living more simply in a material sense, the following essays also maintain that we must simultaneously build structures and institutions that reflect, embody, and foster the same ethics of sufficiency. This means moving away from macroeconomic systems that have an inbuilt imperative to ‘grow or die’, toward post-growth systems that provide for the material needs of all but which do not seek to provide people with ever-higher levels of affluence. These would be highly localised, zero-growth economies based on permaculture principles, which use mostly local resources to meet mostly local needs. (I tried to describe such an economy – a sufficiency economy – in my last book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, which was inspired by the likes of Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, Serge Latouche, David Holmgren, and Ted Trainer.) 

For social and ecological reasons, the problem of population growth must also be confronted (somehow) with dedication and equity, since population is obviously a multiplier of everything, including ecological impact. Nevertheless, the population problem must not be used as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from the more fundamental problems: consumerist aspirations shaping the dominant myth of progress and structures of growth locking us into that myth. 

If our civilisation does not embrace an ethics of sufficiency –and if we persist in the fantasy of globalising affluence and hoping technology and ‘free markets’ will solve our social and ecological problems – we will meet the same fate as the snake that eats its own tail. Before this century is out, our civilisation will have collapsed; will have consumed itself to death. 

• • •

At this stage the paradox of PROSPEROUS DESCENT – the paradox that less can be more – should appear somewhat less paradoxical. The phrase is intended to signify the ‘upside of down’, a positive response to the impending limits to growth which necessitate post-consumerist ways of living. One way or another, for better or for worse, the descent of industrial civilisation is approaching us – in fact, it would seem that the descent is already underway. But currently, the unfolding descent is unplanned and far from prosperous, because most efforts are directed, consciously or unconsciously, toward sustaining the existing civilisation rather than creating something new. Resource limits – especially oil constraints – are beginning to squeeze the life-force out of economies that are dependent on cheap energy inputs to grow, and the reckless burning of fossil energy has begun to destabilise our climate. This is industrial civilisation. It is grossly unsustainable. It is not serving the vast majority of humankind. It has no future.

In order to make the best of the overlapping crises we face – in order to turn those crises into opportunities – the following essays argue that we need to develop cultures that reject consumerism and create far less energy and resource intensive ways of living. To support this cultural revolution in consciousness, we must also build economic and political structures that support and promote the practice of sufficiency. In the most developed regions of the world, this means radically downshifting away from high consumption ways of living and embracing far simpler ways of reduced and restrained consumption. This is the ‘descent’ – the descent away from growth and consumerism – that I argue can be ‘prosperous’, if we negotiate the transition wisely and take to the task with vigour, creativity, and urgency. This book and its companion volume, SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY, attempt to unpack and defend this bold vision, as well as explore the thorny question of how to realise it. 

Before proceeding I should briefly anticipate an objection that will no doubt arise even from this preliminary overview. Let me be clear: the notion of ‘prosperous descent’ is not a prediction. I am not arguing that human beings are going to create a global village of thriving, sufficiency economies, nor do I even suggest that this is likely. And I am certainly not arguing that an unplanned, chaotic civilisational collapse into poverty is going to be ‘prosperous’ (so please do not accuse me of that). My argument is simply that economies of sufficiency, in which the entire community of life can flourish, are the only way to respond effectively to the overlapping crises of industrial civilisation. To oppose Margaret Thatcher with her own words: ‘there is no alternative’. 

If this can be established, as I believe it can, it would follow that we should try to create sufficiency economies, here and now, even if our chances of success do not look good. We may never realise the ideal of a sufficiency economy, but having a coherent ideal functions as a compass to guide action. Without a compass, our energies and efforts would lack direction and thus could easily be misdirected with the best of intentions. Indeed, I worry that dominant strains of the environmental movement today can be understood primarily as misdirected good intentions, efforts which tend to be mistaken in attempting to ‘green’ a growth-orientated mode of production that can never be green. Others oppose the existing order without having any conception of what should replace it. Even those who reject the growth economy sometimes fail to understand the radical implications of such a proposal; fail to understand that we cannot give up growth while other aspects of life more or less go on as usual. Sufficiency, I contend, is a revolutionary project.

While I believe the practical question of ‘strategy’ – the question of how to realise a sufficiency economy – should remain open and dependent on context, the ‘theory of change’ that informs these essays is one grounded in grassroots, community-based action and initiatives. That is to say, I contend that until we have a culture or social consciousness that embraces sufficiency, our politicians are not going to be driven to create the necessary structures of sufficiency, nor, in the absence of such a culture, are we going to build new structures ourselves. In fact, even if such a culture of sufficiency emerged, our politicians are likely to be sluggish and non-responsive in supporting it. This means that the primary (although not necessarily the exclusive) forces of societal change must come ‘from below’, from people like you and me, working in our local communities, at the grassroots level. Before all else, we need to create the social conditions for deep transformation. There is a huge amount our governments could do, of course, to create just and sustainable economies of sufficiency, and in certain chapters I explore some available policy options. This can help us imagine alternative forms of human society and organisation. But we must not wait for governments to act, or we will still be waiting while the ship of civilisation sails over the cliff and crashes into the dark abyss below. 

In any case, we should not want our governments to impose justice and sustainability upon us, and perhaps that would not be possible even if they wanted to. Instead, we must become politically mature enough to govern ourselves toward a better world and shape our own fates. To the extent that governments can assist us, I argue that they should be aiming to deconstruct the barriers to a sufficiency economy, and provide us with the freedom to choose it. Currently that freedom is disastrously constrained, which sadly seems to be part of the design of Empire.

• • •

I will close this introduction by providing a brief outline of the chapters that follow. These essays have been ordered to reflect steps in an argument, however they all stand alone well enough, so there is no need, necessarily, to read them in order. Certain lines of argument, in places, are repeated or summarised, but I hope this serves primarily to emphasise key points and weave the essays together into a coherent whole. 

Chapter 1 lays the foundation for the book by presenting an evidenced-based critique of techno-optimism. Most people today, including many environmentalists, assume that technological advancement will eventually ‘decouple’ our economic growth from environmental impact, thereby allowing us to grow our economies without limit while at the same time reducing ecological impact. This position – which I am calling techno-optimism – is the foundation of dominant conceptions of ‘sustainable development’ and the primary reason so many people assume there are no ‘limits to growth’. If this techno-optimism is justifiable, sustained economic growth may eventually solve global poverty and raise the living standards of all, without destroying the necessary ecosystems that sustain life as we know it. But it is not justifiable. The opening chapter presents a critique of techno-optimism, showing it to be without evidential foundation and dangerously flawed. There are limits to growth – limits which in fact seem to be upon us – and we ignore them at our own peril. The implication is that any adequate response to today’s overlapping crises requires a global shift away from growth economics toward a macroeconomics ‘beyond growth’. 

Chapter 2 reviews the key thinkers and movements in the emerging paradigm of ‘post-growth’ economics. It begins by presenting a brief overview of the conventional growth paradigm, in order to later highlight, by way of contrast, some of the most prominent features of the alternative paradigm. A substantial literature review of post-growth economics is then provided, after which some of the outstanding issues in this emerging paradigm are outlined. This chapter raises questions about what prospects this alternative paradigm has for the economics of growth; what significance it may have if it were ever to succeed; and what the implications could be if it were to remain marginalised. The chapter concludes by outlining a research agenda of critical issues.

Chapter 3 outlines the sociological, ecological, and economic foundations of a macroeconomics ‘beyond growth’, focusing on the idea of degrowth. Degrowth opposes conventional growth economics on the grounds that growth in the highly developed nations has become socially counter-productive, ecologically unsustainable, and uneconomic. Stagnating energy supplies and rising prices also suggest an imminent ‘end of growth’. In response to growth economics, degrowth scholars call for a politico-economic policy of planned economic contraction, an approach which has been broadly defined as ‘an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions’. After defining growth economics and outlining the emerging case for degrowth, this chapter considers the feasibility of a macroeconomics beyond growth and sketches an outline of what such a macroeconomics might look like as a politico-economic programme. 

Chapter 4 is based on the idea that a degrowth process of planned economic contraction depends on, and must be driven by, a culture of ‘simple living’ – or, as the title of this chapter puts it, ‘degrowth implies voluntary simplicity’. Be that as it may, this chapter shows that things are not that simple. Our lifestyle decisions, especially our consumption practices, are not made in a vacuum. They are made within social, economic, and political structures of constraint, and those structures make some lifestyle decisions easy or necessary and other lifestyle decisions difficult or impossible. These structures can even ‘lock’ people into high consumption lifestyles. Change the social, economic, and political structures, however, and different consumption practices would or could emerge. This chapter seeks to deepen the understanding of the relationship between consumer behaviour and the structures which shape that behaviour, in the hope that the existing barriers to sustainable consumption can be overcome or avoided. 

Chapter 5 outlines in more detail the theory and practice of ‘voluntary simplicity’. This term defies easy definition but can be preliminarily understood as a way of life in which people choose to restrain or reduce their material consumption, while at the same time seeking a higher quality of life. For reasons discussed in previous chapters, there is a desperate need for alternative practices and narratives of consumption beyond those prevalent in the most developed regions of the world today, and increasingly people see voluntary simplicity or ‘simple living’ as a coherent and attractive alternative to the ‘work-and-spend’ cycle of consumer culture. After addressing issues of definition, justification, and practice, this chapter concludes by considering some objections that can be levelled against voluntary simplicity, both as a living strategy and as a nascent social movement.

Chapter 6 presents a sympathetic critique of Ted Trainer’s vision of ‘The Simpler Way’, which he has been developing and refining for several decades. Trainer’s essential premise is that overconsumption in the most developed regions of the world is the root cause of our global predicament, and upon this premise he argues that a necessary part of any transition to a sustainable and just world involves the consumer class adopting far ‘simpler’ lifestyles in terms of material and energy consumption. That is the radical implication of our global predicament which most people seem unwilling to acknowledge or accept, but which Trainer does not shy away from, and, indeed, which he follows through to its logical conclusion. Trainer’s complex position can be understood to merge and build upon various strains of socialist, anarchist, and environmentalist thinking. Of particular importance is his critical analysis of the literature on renewable energy, which he argues does not support the assumption that renewable energy can sustain consumer societies. If Trainer is correct, sustainability implies moving toward societies with far lower energy demands than the developed economies, with all that this implies about reduced consumption and production. Needless to say, this directly contradicts the techno-optimism of most sustainability discourse, which assumes that existing and projected energy demands can easily and affordably be met with renewable energy. 

Chapter 7 provides a review of the peak oil situation and offers a response to recent claims that ‘peak oil is dead’. The analysis shows that oil issues remain at the centre of global challenges facing humanity, despite recent claims of oil abundance, and that the challenges are only going to intensify in coming years as competition increases over the world’s most important source of fossil energy. The main issue, however, is not whether we will have enough oil, but whether we can afford to produce and burn the oil we have.

Chapter 8 provides an outline and analysis of various explanations for why the price of oil has fallen so dramatically between June 2014 and February 2015 (the time of writing). The main conclusion defended is that so-called ‘cheap oil’ (at ~$50 per barrel) is just as problematic as expensive oil (at $100+ per barrel), but for very different social, economic, political, and environmental reasons. Just as expensive oil suffocates industrial economies that are dependent on cheap energy inputs to function, cheap oil merely propagates and further entrenches the existing order of global capitalism that is in the process of growing itself to death. 

Chapter 9 presents the most important theoretical contribution of the book, but it is a contribution that I suggest has hugely significant practical implications. The analysis revisits Joseph Tainter’s theory of complexity and collapse and responds to his argument that ‘voluntary simplification’ (which is essentially Tainter’s term for degrowth or the simpler way) is not a viable path to a stable civilisation. Tainter argues forcefully, I admit, that in order to solve the problems facing our species we will need increased energy supplies, and on that basis he rejects the strategy of voluntarily reducing consumption. While I accept many aspects of Tainter’s profound theoretical framework, this chapter ultimately rejects his conclusion, arguing that we are at a stage in our civilisational development where increasing energy consumption is now causing some of the primary problems that energy consumption is supposed to allow us to solve. In order to ‘solve’ some of the central crises of our times – in particular, in order to solve the problem of diminishing marginal returns on complexity which Tainter argues has led to the collapse of civilisations throughout history – I maintain that we must embrace a process of voluntary simplification. The primary contribution of this chapter lies in showing why Tainter’s dismissal of this strategy is misguided and that, in fact, voluntary simplification is the only alternative to collapse.

Chapter 10 is a thought experiment based on a ‘collapse scenario’, which attempts to explore the lifestyle implications of what Paul Gilding has called a ‘Great Disruption’. The question the chapter poses is this: how would an ordinary member of the consumer class deal with a lifestyle of radical simplicity? By radical simplicity I do not mean poverty. Rather, I mean a very low but biophysically sufficient material standard of living. This chapter argues that radical simplicity, in this sense, would not be as bad as it might first seem, provided we were ready for it and wisely negotiated its arrival, both as individuals and communities. The aim of this chapter is to provoke readers to reflect deeply on the question of what material standard of living is really necessary to live a full, human life. If it turns out that much less might be needed than is commonly thought, then in our age of ecological overshoot, this should provide us with further grounds for attempting to minimise our consumption and move toward lifestyles of sufficiency. If we do not choose this path, then my concern is that lifestyles of radically reduced consumption will be soon enough imposed upon us, but in ways that are unlikely to be experienced positively. As Thoreau once said, ‘when a dog runs at you, whistle for him’ – which I interpret as suggesting that we should embrace those things that necessarily await us whether we want those things or not. Nietzsche expressed a similar point: amor fati (‘love thy fate’). 

Chapter 11 is the most philosophical of these collected essays, and is also the longest. It is placed toward the end because it may also be the least accessible, but I include it because I am convinced that the issues it raises are of the utmost importance. The chapter summarises then applies the ethical writings of Michel Foucault to the theory and practice of voluntary simplicity, drawing in particular on his notion of an ‘aesthetics of existence’. Foucault argued that ‘the self’ is socially constructed. So far as that is true, inhabitants of consumer societies have probably internalised the social and institutional celebration of consumer lifestyles to varying degrees, and this will have shaped our identities and worldviews, often in subtle, even insidious, ways. But Foucault also argued that ‘the self’, as well as being shaped by society, can act on itself and change itself through a process of ‘self-fashioning’. This raises the ethical question: what type of person should one create? Given that overconsumption is driving many of the world’s most pressing problems, it may be that ethical activity today requires that we critically reflect on our own subjectivities in order to refuse who we are – so far as we are uncritical consumers. This Great Refusal would open up space to create new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity, which is surely part of the revolution in consciousness needed in order to produce a society based on a ‘simpler way’. After outlining Foucault’s ethics and situating them in the context of consumption practices, the chapter concludes by describing several ‘techniques of the self’ that could be employed by those who wish to practise the idea of voluntary simplicity as an aesthetics of existence.
Chapter 12, the final chapter, is a short essay which was delivered at the Festival of Ideas, at the University of Melbourne, Australia in October 2013. It looks back from the year 2033 to consider how a transition to a low-carbon society might transpire, based on the notion that a crisis is also an opportunity. 

It is worth acknowledging that the essays in this book do not answer all questions and, in fact, may raise as many questions as they answer. A second book of essays is also being published, which I hope will fill some of the gaps. A provisional contents page of that volume, called SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY: ENOUGH, FOR EVERYONE, FOREVER, is included as an appendix to this book.