8 Jun 2010
Exclusive to Transition Culture: an Interview with Chris Martenson: Part Two
When we talked before, you mentioned some practical stories about how people in the US and how people in Transition projects were making use of the Crash Course – could you tell us about those?
Certainly, a number of people have used the Crash Course to great effect. It’s available online for free but not everybody watches 3½ hours of material on a computer, and it really wasn’t my intent for people to sit down alone and watch 3½ hours of stuff on the computer. It’s meant to be shared. So we produced it as three separate discs – they come in a single DVD case – and each of those discs is an hour and a half or less, and that was produced so that people would take that and bring it to their communities, maybe run three separate sessions a week.
That’s what we recommend because you have to integrate the material – I would not recommend watching it all at once. Some people really picked that up and ran forward with it. In January 2010 this year I was out in Sonora, California where a gentleman whose an architect in town had taken the crash course, had the 3 disc set. He put the first disc on on Thursday night, invited everybody back next Thursday, and for the third and final disc. On the fourth Thursday he led a discussion and people talked about it, and then he repeated that the next month. He went from 12 people to 48. Then he repeated it the next month and it went up to 90 odd people, and then he had to move to a larger space.
He did that for 6 months in a row, and when I showed up out there to give a talk they were going to use that talk as a springboard event to introduce the concept of becoming a Transition Town, organising themselves together around this idea that there’s things they might want to do together as a community. When I showed up they rented the largest auditorium – it seemed very ambitious to me, it seated 440 people. They ended up having to turn maybe 50 or 70 people away at this event because the hall had been filled to capacity. To capture the feeling of it – it was very exciting, there was a lot of energy in the room, it was really fantastic.
Somebody who stood up afterwards just captured it perfectly. He said, ‘before I ask a question I just want to make a statement. I see everybody in town here, I see lawyers, I see council people, we’ve got our hippies in the room, our conservatives – we’ve got everybody here. This reminds me of 3 years ago when we had that forest fire that was threatening our town, and everybody dropped their social walls and we just came together because we knew that there was something facing us that was larger than our daily lives and we banded together. That’s what it feels like.’
To me that’s just a fantastic success story because that’s exactly how I envision the Crash Course being used: as a way of taking a very complicated bit of information and putting it into one spot so that we don’t have to keep reinventing that particular wheel, and put just enough in there so that people can see the context that underlies the actual set of conditions that we find ourselves in today, so that we can come to the conclusion that we need to start doing something. That’s where the Crash Course leaves off and then it’s up to each community to go forward and take their interpretation of that that’s unique for them.
Everybody’s got different land, different water, different socio-economic, different sources of wealth – everybody’s got a slightly different condition. That’s why I’ve just been so pleased that they were able to go and pick up the Transition Handbook because the Transition model is all about individual communities holding up a framework and then adapting it to their situation and particular condition. They had a great kick-off and they’re up and running and I’m getting reports back from them, and the best part about that whole story is that yes, there’s an urgency, yes, there’s some anxiety, but they’ve just done it with a real sense of excitement and purpose and joy.
To me they’re an absolute model of how this can be done – the fact that we not only can, but we have to find ways to reach everybody in town, not just the usual people that show up to change things. We need everybody to pull on this. Everybody’s got to contribute, and everybody has something to contribute. So I’m just really pleased with that particular outcome out there, I love what they did.
That’s a great example. On that subject of reaching everybody, when you came and spoke in Bristol, one of the people that came up on the platform afterwards for discussion was the person was the senior officer leading on this sort of energy planning work for Bristol City Council. And he sat there and he said, ‘Thank you Chris, that’s a real eye opener but what do I do with that now? How do I actually create organisational, infrastructure level, meaningful change in response to this, because what you’re really saying is we need to fundamentally change our practices, and most organisations are not built up to enable fundamental change – they’re built up to respond to either business as usual or incremental change.
Yes, and certainly that’s one of the great challenges. I don’t know any other way to begin to approach that, besides starting with developing a critical mass of awareness within the community, within the town, within the organisation. Once that critical mass of awareness is there and you have enough people on board who are saying, ‘yeah, I get it, we have to fundamentally do things differently’, I think you can open it up to the second part of the conversation. That’s when we can start to explore ways in which we can culturally realign ourselves so, what is the culture of an organisation and how does that adaptability work?
Here’s a perfect example of this. Katrina comes into Louisiana and makes a mess of things, and it turns out that FEMA is mortally embarrassed. There are life long members of FEMA that are mortally crushed by the lack of ability to respond to that type of crisis. So they commissioned a study, they said, ‘why did that happen?’ They realised that they’d built themselves up over time in these siloed types of organisations, so there’s somebody who’s responsible for water, and there’s somebody who’s responsible for shelter, and there’s somebody whose responsible for food.
That person who’s on the ground doing food will move to their particular corner of the disaster and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I need water’. They have to go all the way up to the top, jump over and go down to the water people, and it’s a very poor response. So they said, ‘is there any example that we can look to that says, here’s an example of a major disaster that was dealt with really well – we’d like to know how that happened and why they were organised.’ It turns out there was another hurricane, hurricane Aniki, just an amazing blow and it came across Hawaii and the community on one of the islands got the full brunt of this thing and it was absolutely destroyed.
By the time anyone got there three days later, the town had its own water set up, it had taken care of its injured, it had basically gotten everything under control….so FEMA went back and did a study and asked, ‘how did this happen?’ It turns out it was the culture – they still had this indigenous culture there such that when this storm came in, people knew that if their children weren’t with them, they’d be with someone else and they knew they’d be fine; they had cultural means of managing chaos and disruption, they did a lot of things horizontally.
Everybody within each of their areas felt empowered to do whatever they needed to do in their areas, but felt perfectly empowered to do other things that needed doing. Everybody just more organically did what needed doing, right where they were at that moment of crisis. So FEMA wrote this whole report up and said, ‘no, we didn’t suffer from a lack of resources, we totally had enough resources to manage this particular crisis….what we had was a cultural problem. Our culture was geared towards one set of circumstances, and it couldn’t realign itself, couldn’t be flexible, couldn’t reorganise itself in the face of a crisis that was actually larger than our organisation’s current ability.’
So I don’t know how you have that level of discussion about how Bristol City Council could benefit from changing itself culturally, until people have that critical mass of awareness that there’s a hurricane like Aniki? coming, and that it’s in our best interests. It’s something we have to do.
Because we either respond now, while we can, with the luxury of time, or we respond later when pressed by circumstances. Between those two particular responses there’s just a world of difference, night and day. I just think that step one is building that awareness, building that sense of urgency, getting that critical mass, and then we can step into that next box. It’s cart before the horse to start talking about fundamental, non-status quo changes until people are ready and receptive to really have those conversations.
Does what’s going on in Greece at the moment mean that the cultural stories can change very quickly because the crisis becomes far more obvious to people and you can move pretty much immediately onto fundamental infrastructure change? Also, what lessons do you think the UK could be learning from what’s happening in Greece?
I think both lessons are ones that we’ve learnt before and that we’re going to relearn again, that is that financial crises are incredibly quick. They’re like bush fires – one day everything is fine, and a couple of weeks later everything is not fine. This is particularly true to the extent that our entire financial system is one global construct so when they say that Greece is about to default the first question is, ‘default on what, and who do they owe it to?’ It turns out that France is exposed, Germany’s exposed, the UK is exposed, America is exposed, a lot of countries are exposed to this debt.
The lesson there is that when these things finally break, they break incredibly quickly. So I would extrapolate that just a little bit and go forward and say, ‘Greece has a problem because it had spending mismanagement at the government level, but really it has a problem of living beyond its means, and it was piling up debt. A debt edifice creeps to a higher and higher level and then it suddenly breaks, and we saw that in Greece. Well let’s fast forward – there are a number of other countries out there right now, and the UK is one of them, whose debt level should be creating some pretty serious cause for concern amongst people because those debt levels are really at the same sorts of levels we’ve been seeing in Greece.
The chief lesson is, don’t be complacent. Be aware of the risks. You should be asking yourselves if these risks are getting larger, or are they getting smaller. One of my chief criticisms on the way in which this economic bailout was handled on both sides of the Atlantic, was to increase the level of indebtedness of the public sector, and it’s therefore increased the threat of a Greece-like event. I really believe individuals should trust themselves, look at the numbers, read them, say, ‘Does this make me feel better or worse about our future prospects?’
A lot of people are coming to the conclusion that this whole notion of just piling up ever higher larger amounts of public debt to cover up a shortfall in private borrowing – yes it’s a solution, but it’s not addressing the root cause of the problem. This is a crisis rooted in debt, we’re going deeper in debt, and that creates higher levels of risk. For the UK I think there should be hard, fundamental questions around the level of indebtedness, how this is going to be serviced, how it’s going to shape the future, and really question is it that important that we get consumers back consuming at any cost, or should we maybe consider that this is the time when should be retrenching?
We’ve lived beyond our means for a period of time, maybe we have to consider living below our means to offset that, get the yin and the yang balance again, and then come out of this crisis stronger, more structurally sound, with a better functioning economy after taking a run down. That makes a lot of sense, but it’s not the direction the UK has chosen, it’s not the direction the US has chosen, and it looks like it’s not the direction the EU is going to choose with Greece. It looks like they’re going to print and add more public debt to cover up debt that’s essentially already gone bad. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m hoping I’m wrong and that their strategy will work, but the risks are still there – in some cases I think we can make an argument that they’re higher than they used to be, and that’s a cause for concern.
What we’re seeing in Greece is that as the kind of cuts that are required to get an economy out of that mess kick in, we’re starting to see some significant public order issues and big strikes. Is it inevitable that the way out of that amount of debt is going to involve major hardship across the board and we just have to accept that’s how it is?
Public disorder is something that concerns me because it just shows what happens when people have one set of expectations or a set of entitlements and those are not met, or are dashed. Often that does result in social strife. That’s certainly a very well understood dynamic. There’s something called an IMF riot – those used to happen all the time down in South America, and in Africa and other places. What’s interesting is that a little bit of the IMF medicine is now coming to the Western world and so we’re seeing it get better television coverage, but the dynamic itself is really well understood.
Greece got itself into some trouble, and yes they over spent and so now we’re seeing the early stages of IMF riots in their country as austerity measures are imposed and that’s a predictable sort of a reaction. When I cast forward and I look at peak oil and this lack of energy expansion and its impact on the economy, it will create kind of that same condition all across the western world. We could be entering a period – and I try to make a case for this in the work I do – it’s a serious option and I think people should consider it as a possibility.
We could be facing that same sort of circumstance across much of Europe and across the United States, Japan as well, China is a bit of a wild card to me. I see those countries as being heavily exposed to this particular story. So in some ways I look at Greece and I see that in some ways it a harbinger of things to come. I try to understand how the official sectors respond to this, what do the policy makers do on the fiscal side, on the monetary side. There’s a larger lesson in this: the same story is playing out in Greece now that I saw play out in General Motors when they bailed it out, which is that they’re going to print money in order to protect the current holders of the bonds from experiencing significant losses. That’s one way you can do it, but all that does is it makes the holders of the bonds whole in the story, and transfers the cost of that onto everybody, through the pernicious effects of printing money out of thin air, which creates inflation and a truly regressive tax because it hits everyone at once, it punishes savers. So really we could see this in some ways as rewarding the imprudent at the expense of the prudent – I’m not a big fan of this because people are quick learners and it doesn’t take them long to figure out it doesn’t pay to be prudent.
The next thing you know, you’ve got a worse problem on your hands. So I think we’re seeing very predictable, short sighted responses which are, ‘let’s just keep the pain in Greece down as much as possible now, we’ll just make it through next week, we’re just trying to manage a crisis.’ But inevitably, we find that the long term health and very important sources of sociological and cultural impact are really swept under the rug in the name of battling a crisis.
History shows that when these sorts of crises come around, when governments resort to the printing option instead of the bitter pill option – the printing option has not yet worked in a long term capacity. It’s all descended into some sort of pain: currency collapse, major inflation, sometimes hyper inflation. We had hyper inflation in Yugoslavia, hyper inflation in Germany before World War II. Inflation is the absolute number one thing I would want to avoid at any possible cost, but we’re seeing our early responses are to print our way out of this and so there are some concerns there as well.
If I could give any advice it would be to say, ‘why don’t we just try to see what happens if the people who have been imprudent have to live with the consequences of that, and not sacrifice the prudent at this particular order. Is there any way we can make the outcome of this rest on the shoulders of those who are most responsible? So far that’s not the course we’re taking, at least as far as I can see.
You could argue that the imprudent ones are the ones that are taking the decisions still! I have a final question for you – I know you strove in the crash course to stick to fact and not opinion, but this is definitely one on opinion. It’s to do with the depth of the crisis you’ve very convincingly argued we’re hurtling towards, and whether in fact, given the deep grained nature of our industrial growth system, we would have had any opportunity to change in a meaningful way without such a crisis?
I absolutely think we could – if everyone woke up tomorrow with an entirely different view we could do things completely differently. It is entirely possible for us to use energy in ways that are much more clever, efficient. We are wasting enormous amounts of resources at this particular point in time. My understanding of energy is that this is a once in a species bequeathment, it was built up over hundreds of millions of years and we’re going to use it in a roughly 200 year time frame and so we could actually be giving ourselves the most important gift. We could absolutely be giving ourselves the gift of time by entering into very aggressive conservation programmes, and being much more clever about how we use our energy.
Here’s an example – if someone wants to come forward and have a great idea for say turning algae into biofuel then they’ve found a way to recycle nutrient loss coming out of sewage plants and that want some energy to go forward and do that – if I was king for a day I would say, ‘okay, here’s what energy is going to cost you for that particular use.’ But if Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft wants to take a 400 ft yacht around the world, I would have a different cost for that fuel. I think that instead of pulling all of this energy out of the ground as fast as possible and then allowing ‘the market’ to decide where it gets used, I think we could be a lot more directive and a lot more specific about where it’s going.
In my own little corner here on my property we’re starting to work with a wonderful, bright young guy with permaculture principles for growing food. I understand that it’s possible to use a lot less energy and still have a very good quality of life, in my own small corner of the world and I don’t understand why that can’t be possible elsewhere, why we couldn’t be much more clever and creative about the ways in which we use energy. I think this doesn’t have to end in crisis, there are lots of ways we could restructure currency systems that we already know about, there are already the technologies that exist – we don’t need any new ones to be developed – that can allow us to use our energy much more efficiently and usefully.
We don’t need any new thinking, we don’t need any more books to be written, we don’t need any more technology, we could absolutely apply what we’ve already got and make enormous differences. But – we are not. That’s why I think that of the things we need most, we need political will, more than anything, to be serious about this, to confront the issues on the basis of the data, to really face the facts as we know them. If we do that, I can see ways that this could be really positive, that this could actually turn out that we have many generations of time in front of us.
If we do it poorly – meaning status quo, all engines full, must get back to consumptive lifestyles, must bet back to full spending then we’ll talk about the real issue – I see a lot of ways that that story could fall of the rails and have an accident. I’m hopeful because I see ways it could turn out, I have a loss of hope in some ways because I don’t see us being serious, really serious about the nature of the predicament we’re in at that stage. But we could close that gap, that’s where Transition Towns come in, that’s where I come in, that’s where Daly comes in, that’s where all the people that you mention come in, to try and change the narrative where there’s still time.
To me, that’s where the work needs to happen. It’s about changing the stories we tell ourselves, it’s about having a different narrative. The most important one, that we’ve touched on a couple of times today, if we could just change this one sentence then a lot would fall off and it could all be beautiful: ‘the economy must grow’. If we could just drop that concept and be really serious about finding economic models that aren’t reliant on continuous exponential growth, then a lot of great things would fall off of that. Big changes, but they’d be exciting changes and I think a lot of people, particularly young people, would find a very purposeful set of ideas and jobs to throw their hearts and minds into.