7 Jun 2010
Exclusive to Transition Culture: An Interview with Chris Martenson: Part One
A while ago, Peter Lipman and myself did an interview with Chris Martenson when he was in Bristol as part of his tour of the UK. We did an extensive and far-ranging interview, which was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, the memory card in my recording machine was irreparably damaged shortly thereafter and the interview lost, and so, a couple of weeks ago, we repeated the exercise, this time over the phone. This ‘second-time lucky’ interview covers much of the same ground, and proved to be just as fascinating.
So Chris, introduce yourself and the Crash Course to any Transition Culture readers unfamiliar with your work.
My name is Chris Martenson and I’m the creator of something known as the Crash Course which is an online tutorial that explores the connections between the economy, energy and the environment. I’m a father of three children, a former scientist – toxicology was my training but I was a research scientist. I then went on and got an MBA and spent about a decade in the corporate world, corporate finance and various strategic management finance positions, terminating in a position where I was vice president in a company doing high level consulting to the life sciences industry, which is where I was when I stumbled across the information that is now enshrined in the Crash Course and that changed my life forever.
If you had to explain the Crash Course to somebody in a lift for three minutes, how would you encapsulate the essence of the Crash Course?
I would say that there’s an amazingly high chance that there’s going to be an enormous change in our future. The economy is the way in which we organise ourselves, it’s how we get things done, it’s the living, breathing creature that surrounds our daily lives and so we have a commanding interest in its health and well-being – certainly the events of 2008 have really brought that to the forefront of people. But the economy doesn’t exist by itself – it’s intimately connected to, and feeds upon resources that come out of the earth, human resources, all kinds of resources.
I connect the economic ‘e’ to another ‘e’, which is energy. There’s enough information out there around the concept that we might be nearing peak energy. Peak oil in particular – people owe it to themselves to take a good, hard look at that particular story. Then I extended into the environment, that being the third ‘e’. There I’m really looking at resources, all kinds of resources – phosphorous, copper, uranium or any of the other resources that we get from the earth. When we put all three of these ‘e’s into one spot, it seems very likely that the ways in which things have been working up until now is not the same way things will continue to work.
It’s a story of change, it’s a story of a sharp corner in the road, potentially, but it’s really ultimately a story that at first might look disturbing, or potentially even depressing to some people, ultimately is a story about the options and opportunities we have to take control, to seize the power back in our lives, to be responsible for how our personal, individual and community futures turn out.
Chris, I know that the Crash Course and your thinking has been evolving. Since you first put the Crash Course online, are there things you’ve fundamentally changed your views on?
I think one of the things that’s shifted very dramatically for me is thinking about what responses make sense, given the information in the course. For me, when I first started on this journey, it occurred to me that there were a lot of personal changes I had to make in my life, and I made those. When I say ‘my life’, this is my wife and my family – we made some very profound changes in our individual lives. But along that path, which has been about 5 years for us now, we discovered the power of community and the importance of community.
There are some individual things everybody should do – my approach is to think that if you want a strong nation, you need strong individual provinces or states, and if you want a strong states you need strong cities, and if you want strong cities you need strong communities, and if you want strong communities you need strong individuals. So that’s the path I say. There are some changes that can be made in our lives that really apply to us as individuals, but the most important ones for us, particularly in the last couple of years, have been in the importance of community and really thinking about how we want to approach this next ten years and really coming to the conclusion that for us, in my family, we want to approach it with joy, excitement, as much happiness as we properly can.
We are where we are, whatever’s going to unfold that’s out of my control will unfold, but of the things I can control, there’s no reason to do those from anything than the position of excitement. I really truly think there are some very exciting times coming, maybe some hard times as well. My learning has been that in order to have these changes not of the disrupting, hard sort – in order to have them be of the exciting sort, that’s all about community. I guess that word means different things to different people, but to me, that means strong, inter-dependent relationship with the people around me on my street, in my town, with the people I know.
So does that mean you might make some changes to chapter 20 of the Crash Course as it’s currently up there, on the web?
You know, my wife and I have been in this together and we hold seminars. The Crash Course is a prerequisite for people coming to our seminars, because we don’t want to spend another minute talking about it. The Crash Course is a big step into the left side of the brain, it has all the information there, it can present a very compelling case that something needs to be done, that there’s a sense of urgency that perhaps the way things used to work is not how we’re going to work going forward. That would be a bad strategy to plan on that sort of future.
When we do the seminars however, we step over into the right side of the brain and we talk about what are the implications of this material. There might be some practical implications, and we might spend a lot of time with some people talking about those; that there might be physical implications in terms of where do I live, where does my food come from, what are the things I can start to engage with on that front. But there are emotional implications as well. A lot of this material confronted beliefs, very powerfully held beliefs, beliefs like, ‘my country’s number one’, or ‘we’ve always made it through crises before because we’ve kept an optimistic view.’
Or beliefs about money and how it is created. So when those beliefs are confronted, that creates a lot of emotional turmoil. And in many cases we’ve found it really does follow the model that Kubhler-Ross laid down, in terms of the five stages of grief, although we add another stage or two in there because they seem to be stages that people enter when they first encounter this material.
In the seminars, a really important part for people is how you can identify where someone is on that spectrum, from denial at one end to acceptance at the other. And how to talk to people who are not where you are on that spectrum, so if I’m in a position of anger, where I was a few years ago, I found that I could talk to angry people and we’d have a little angry get together and we’d be preaching to the choir with each other. Once I learnt that my intentions to be as effective as I can, to communicate this information – and it can be really challenging, not just intellectually, but emotionally challenging – I found that once I lost my attachment to needing people to be where I was with the material, I became a lot more effective.
So we have a whole part on how to talk to friends, loved ones, reluctant partners, spouses, about what can be a really challenging amount of material. So instead of going back and reworking chapter 20 of the crash course, our intent is to build off all this other material that we’ve got that really just extends and builds off it, and say, ‘okay, we’ve got the left side of the brain, now let’s talk about the other side of things’.
It’d be good, following on from that, to look at how you prepared the Crash Course. I remember you saying that you had very deliberately gone through it, stripping out things which were questions of opinion and sticking to facts, so as to make it as hard as possible for people to say, ‘I’m not going to listen to that at all’. But it sounds like in your seminars, you’re doing almost the opposite there from that process you did with the crash course.
The similarity between the two pieces is that we’re still taking the complicated information, and we’re putting some structure around it and we’re unpacking it and taking a good careful look at it. You mentioned the piece which is very important, which does show up in the second part of the seminar as well, it’s in the first crash course, which is differentiating between fact and opinion and belief. There are good facts and flakey, murkey facts and we spend some time talking about the difference between the two. Opinions are generated off of facts and they tend to be conclusions.
Beliefs exist at the sub-conscious level, they’re actually what cause us to take actions or not take action. The point of everything, the one thing that I’m trying to get across to people is that this is a time to take action, even if we’re not really clear what they are, we haven’t got it all mapped out, it’s really time to start demonstrating strong alignment and in many cases any alignment between what we know to be true and the lives that we’re living. For a lot of people that’s a huge gap and it creates anxiety. My goal is to help reduce that anxiety and to give people the most important gift I know, which is the gift of time – time to begin adjusting to a possibly difficult future on your own terms, in your own way.
Having this lead time can be one of the most important gifts that anyone can give to themselves even, to begin working with this material on their own terms while the time exists, while the resources are there; taking a more central path up and around an escarpment rather than having to scale it all at once at some point in the future when things change. So that’s the direction that we go with that. I don’t see them as necessarily in opposition to each other, it’s really an extension of the same kind of structured thinking, but it does get into an area which is a little bit murkier than straight facts, if you will.
One of the criticisms by some of crash course has been the degree to which it downplays climate change and doesn’t factor that in as one of the key issues. Can you talk about your thinking behind that?
I very specifically avoided that whole area for two reasons. The first is that I thought I could create a compelling enough sense of urgency without going into that topic, and the second reason is that I had worked with this enough in various life settings to discover that there are people on both sides of that story that hold very strong beliefs around that material. I only know one climate scientist and I trust him very intimately with his material and we’ve talked about it a lot, but not everybody else is a climate scientist – they’ve fallen into camps.
They’re approaching the topic with very strong beliefs. In talking about things that touch on very strong beliefs, it’s very tricky territory. My experience is that when I’m talking to somebody who’s holding a very strong belief is that in presenting it, or even slightly challenging it, or even raising a fact that runs counter to it, they’ll react to it emotionally, usually with anger or with some sort of a charge, sometimes sadness.
In looking at that, I waded pretty deeply into the story and because I would have to spend a whole other hour of material on this – I’m not sure how many up sides I could get out of this. I can see a lot of ways I could fail and create down sides. And you know, I think I can still tell the story in a way that creates the same sorts of changes that I’m seeking, preaches the same sorts of urgency that I’m seeking, without touching that story. So it was really a strategic decision and part of it was a tactic and it was really centred on my belief at the time when I was putting the crash course together, that I was going to be opening an enormous can of worms and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to or qualified to manage.
I doubted my ability to go into that territory and come out of it with the ability to reach everybody. If I had a mission or a goal for the crash course it was to create it in such a way that it’s not partisan, there’s no religious beliefs in there; I’m not engaging in any class or socio-economic warfare zones if you will. I hope that the crash course is presenting a body of material that is so important that I want everyone to have the chance to hear it, without them shutting down and saying, ‘Oh he holds the wrong position on a political party, on climate change, on a belief-laden area’. So it was just my belief that I could reach more people telling it the way I did without going into climate change, than if I had.
In Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown, he talks about the difference between ‘Building Lifeboats, or ‘Powerdown’ as a response. There was the paper that David Korowicz just produced, ‘Tipping Point’, that FEASTA published, where he talks about whether what we’re looking at is sudden collapse, systemic collapse, or whether we’re looking at oscillating decline. What’s your sense of what the terrain of the next 5-10 years looks like in relation to those scenarios?
I see ranges of possibilities, that’s part of my background and training. I would give about an 80% chance that what’s going to happen is all these trillions of dollars that have been pumped into the economic landscape by governments all across the globe, they’re going to find their mark in the sense that they’ll what will be a viable economic recovery – I think we’ve seen the first glimpses and glimmers of that in some of the data, but it’s really a false rebirth, it’s not born on the back of what I would call legitimate economic foundations, it’s just money that’s been printed out of thin air and poured into the economic patient.
It will jolt back to life and the problem is that all the energy data that I’m reading right now suggests that because of the credit conditions we’ve run into, and because of volatility in the markets and uncertainty, a whole lot of projects in oil and gas have just not been undertaken. So there are some real issues with supply as we go forward. My view is that there’s an 80% chance, a very high chance that within in the next 5 years our economically rejuvenated patient runs into an actual legitimate supply constraint on energy.
So we’ll see that old $147 barrel of July 2008, we’ll see that again. There’s a risk in there that some nations discover that this concept of resource nationalisation potentially, they worry about not exporting oil if it’s truly in limited supply. When I look forward to that….you’re asking a question about the scope, the scale, the pace of the next shock… it is my contention that that next shock has a very strong chance of being a lot worse than the last one, meaning that we could see much larger volatility in the currency markets, we could see some markets shut down, we could see that whole portions of the economy basically cease to function, particularly the portions that were predicated on ever expanding credit growth.
I see that has a very high chance of happening. Whether that leads to, or is perceived by some people as collapse; I don’t really know what collapse means, but I do know that what I suspect is going to happen is that we will see a dramatic shrinking of expectation and economic complexity as a result of the next oil or energy shock that’s going to come forward. I base that on the fact that I can’t find any literature, I can’t find any academic discussion, I can’t find any policies, I can’t find any writing that has even begun yet to address the gap that exists between the idea of economic growth on one hand, and the failure of energy to continue growing on the other hand.
There’s an enormous gap there – nobody has yet explained how economic growth can happen in the absence of growth in basic energy supplies. I know some people are starting to work around the edges of that and start wanting to produce some amount of work in that regard. Certainly I’ve been hammering at it, a number of other people are as well, but there’s really, as far as I can tell, no high level official response, recognition, thinking around that. That’s going to take time. My concern around how this will unfold is that I see that when we hit this next shock, we’re probably going to be about as unprepared for it, intellectually…as we are today, because there’s almost no curiosity, there’s no room for these sorts of ideas to yet be involved in, or engaged with these high level ideas.
If the next crisis happens, I believe this is the kind of crisis that’s so fundamental, so structurally major that we need every possible minute to begin wrapping our minds around this, to begin thinking about how we’re going to respond to this in a proactive rather than a reactive fashion. Once we’re reactive to the reality of the second energy crisis I think the consequences are going to be higher magnitude, a little bit more volatile, possibly a lot more vicious than the set of shocks we just went through.
That’s the highest likelihood – I always reserve a small chance somewhere in there that we might discover that there’s a system error, that would cause things to really, really change, like international banking not really working in a viable way anymore or something like that that would fundamentally alter the landscape that we’ve carefully built over the last few decades, which is a global, just-in-time delivery network of manufacturing and supply. So I have some concerns about supply chain disruption and things like that, but my major thought is that we experience another shock that feels like the last one, but probably more severe.
When you say Chris that you don’t think there’s been much intellectual preparation for this, would you not see some grappling of these ideas in the work of say Herman Daily on Steady State Economics, or Peter Victor on Managing Without Growth?
Oh absolutely, you’ve mentioned two academics and there’s a number of others I’d include in that as well. I was really referring to official recognition, at the higher levels of parliament or in D.C. or places like that – from the political class would be one end. And then on the banking side, we are still being very heavily patrolled if you will, by a set of bankers – talking about my country specifically, the central reserve is really, really tight with our Wall Street bankers.
I haven’t detected anything yet from their analysts that would suggest they’ve understood the rift that I see, to the larger economy and the overall model due to energy insufficiency. That’s something that’s still wide open. There are one or two notable exceptions – Jeff Rubin of CBC, their chief economist, he’s got this story down and he’s up there talking about it. So there are some, but I’m talking about do we have critical mass, are we really talking about this as something other than a few pockets at the edges – how close to the centre are these discussions. It’s my assessment that we’re not that close to the centre yet.
Clearly you know most about how close to the centre this discussion is in the US – do you see significant cultural differences between the US and maybe the UK and Europe or other parts of the world?
Absolutely, the UK is in my estimation way ahead of us rhetorically in talking about some of these issues. When I was just over there on a visit it really struck me that several decades of much higher petrol prices has this shaping effect on society, that leads to all sorts of things around how efficient mass transit is, around people’s relationships with automobiles vs. walking, there’s all kinds of very subtle, long term impacts of having lived with a very different energy landscape, and a very different cultural landscape.
My assessment of my own country is that we still have a dominant belief in the story that there are no resource limits, and if there are technology will fix them. We haven’t yet got to the point of self-admission on a cultural level that says, ‘we might actually have to live within some sort of limit.’ That work has not really begun here yet at the centre, but people all around the edges are absolutely figuring that out and coming to these sorts of conclusions on their own, so that’s what gives me great hope.
That’s the reason I tend to work with groups on the edges rather than spending my time trying to wade into the centre and convince the centre of something. It’s not clear to me that we’ll be able to change attitudes at the centre fast enough before the next crisis, so I think we’ll have to manage that things as best we can at the centre.