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3 Sep 2013

An interview with Nafeez Ahmed: "This is an unprecedented opportunity"

One of the most illuminating voices in the British media at the moment is Nafeez Ahmed, who has been regularly writing about peak oil, climate change, geopolitics and how they all overlap in the Guardian.  I was very honoured to be able to speak to Nafeez to hear his thoughts on the current state of debates around peak oil and the future of fossil fuels, what we might do about it, and the role Transition might play.  As usual, you can either download or just play the podcast below, or read the transcript that follows.  

I began by my asking Nafeez to introduce himself …

“My name is Nafeez Ahmed. My background is in international security. I used to be an academic at the University of Sussex in International Relations, looking at mass violence and the structural causes of mass violence. This is what led me to look deeper at the underlying challenges that we’re facing today such as climate change, peak oil and all the rest of it. And how all that stuff is changing the world and creating a heightened danger of conflict when you’re looking at narrow, business-as-usual ways out rather than transformative solutions. I wrote a book on that called A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation and also made a film based on the book called The Crisis of Civilisation which people can watch online for free. 

You’ve written a lot recently about how gas fracking is being hugely over-hyped and how we may well be looking at ‘peak uranium’ by 2015, and a study that said don’t do any more nuclear whatever you do. You’ve written about peak oil. When you look at all those things coming together, you analysis is increasingly at odds with what we encounter in the mainstream media, this bullish optimism that a new ‘golden age of fossil fuels’ is waiting round the corner. What’s your take on the tension between those two analyses and where we find ourselves as a civilisation? 

It’s interesting, because there’s actually been what I think is a concerted public relations effort on the part of the fossil fuel industry and the nuclear industry to re-assert their control in the face of the fact that there’s a lot of confusion and concern about fossil fuels at the moment. This is due to climate change, as well as concerns about the viability of maintaining our dependence on fossil fuels given the costs, in the age when cheap energy is no longer really an option. 

Oil pumping

I think there has been a real concerted effort to re-establish some kind of control over that discourse and to re-assert the idea that everything’s fine and we don’t need to change fundamentally the way that we do things. There’s a lot of hype in a lot of these industries. A lot of what my reporting has focused on recently is trying to distinguish between the hype and the facts, and how we square up the reality of the actual costs of energy these days and the fact that energy is a lot more expensive. 

How does that square up with the claims that everything’s going to be fine, we’ve got abundant uranium, we’ve got abundant shale gas and we can just carry on and it’s all very clean?  All these new energies are supposed to be very clean and to be able to sustain industrial growth for the foreseeable future, but it just doesn’t square up with reality. 

The reports I was looking at on shale gas were from a lot of very credible sources. You had a guy, David Hughes, who used to work for the Canadian government, assessing Canada’s national oil and gas supplies for about 30 years. Another was by Deborah Rogers who is an advisor to the US government, on the problems with fracking. She’s actually an advisor to the US Department of the Interior. Also there was a report from the Energy Watch Group based in Germany which was authored by a physicist. The Energy Watch Group is a network of European scientists who have been looking at these issues for a while. 

I thought it was interesting that you had a whole range of different experts who are quite separated in their fields of work but ended up coming to quite similar conclusions, which is that actually there have been deliberate efforts to over-estimate the quantity of shale gas resources, the quantity of unconventional resources in general, including shale oil as well, and to overestimate the extent to which we can rely on these, and to underestimate the costs of exploiting these resources. 

The overall result of the research that these guys put out was that if you take into account these overestimations and underestimations, the picture you come away with is actually quite worrying, to the extent that we’re looking at the idea that shale gas could really just be a Ponzi scheme. This is industry just keeping things afloat but it’s not really going to solve our energy problem in the long run. This is really the same kind of picture we’re seeing with the nuclear industry as well. There’s a gap between the claims of the industry and claims about the cost, claims about the cleanness of nuclear, and the fact that actually there’s a lot of evidence that we’re facing a uranium supply crunch within the next 10 years. There was a peer-reviewed study that I looked at in one of my articles but there’s also a lot of industry concern about this as well. 

When you put all of that together, you look at the reality of what we’re facing in the long run. Rob, you’ve been working on this for a long time as well, and you know as well that really in the long run, the age of fossil fuels is over. This century is the end of the age of fossil fuels and it doesn’t matter which way you look at it, even if you look at it from an optimistic perspective, you’re still looking at declining and depleting during the first quarter of this century. 

You’re looking at us running pretty low, costs getting high, and that impacting the economy, impacting our contemporary industrial way of life and causing a lot of problems if we don’t make those choices now to change the way we do things. And I think that’s really the picture that I’m trying to get across.  People get very bogged down with the detail of whether we’re going to peak in 2015 or if we’re going to peak in 2020 or 2035. For me, the peak in 2025 or 2030 is bad enough. We need to start preparing for these issues now. 

We’re already very late in the day. So ultimately for me, it’s about looking at how we can get across this understanding.  If we are looking at the end of the age of fossil fuels for a variety of reasons this century, then what does the alternative look like and how do we get there? 

The recent explosion in oil production in the States, from when we were talking about peak oil 5 years ago, how do you think that that has changed things? Do you think that it’s more like the report that Dr Tim Morgan wrote for Tullett Prebon, arguing that it’s really about Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI), and we’ll reach a point where the EROEI becomes too low to sustain growth? Is that an analysis you agree with, or what’s your sense of how peak oil will play out now that the US seems to be upping its production quite substantially? 

I think Morgan’s analysis has definitely got a lot going for it. I think the EROEI is very important. What’s interesting about the peak oil debate is that there’s been this idea that has been put out that peak oilers predicted the end of civilisation as a point of peak production, but that hasn’t really understood what the peak oilers were saying. 

Nafeez Ahmed

I think they have a point in that most people really didn’t anticipate the extent to which shale gas and fracking would be able to ramp up production to some extent in the United States. They didn’t anticipate that. But equally most people in the oil industry didn’t anticipate it either. Nobody really anticipated the extent to which fracking would be able to access unconventional oil and gas. 

On the other hand, the fundamental predictions of the core cadre of peak oil geologists, people like Dr Colin Campbell, actually what they’ve been saying has been borne out. People like Campbell were actually very cautious in their predictions. They never advocated that civilisation would just collapse and it would be the end of everything. What they did say was when we had a peak in conventional oil production, we would see an increasing shift towards unconventional oil and gas, at which point energy would become a lot more expensive. This would have an impact on the economy and we would see that impact increase with time. 

So when we look at the actual arguments made by the geologists about peak oil, it’s actually quite different from the way it’s characterised sometimes in the mainstream, which is this idea that we’re running out of oil. People like Campbell never said that we’re running out of oil at all. They actually admitted that we have abundant oil reserves. But the issue is the distinction between conventional and unconventional, which I think the mainstream often confuses. 

This is something the industry is exploiting in order to get this idea that we have huge amounts of oil and gas and we don’t have anything to worry about. The recent estimates by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) are that we have so much oil and gas reserves if you take into account unconventional.  People like Campbell and David Hughes say that it’s not just about the quantity of the reserves, it’s about the rate at which you can actually extract those reserves and refine them and convert them into usable oil, and the cost of doing so. 

What’s pretty much not disputed now, when you look at the data, whether it’s from the International Energy Agency (IEA) or the EIA in the US, is that we’ve pretty much reached a plateau in conventional crude oil production since 2005 and it’s been going on for more than 5 years which is unprecedented. Sometimes there’s been a down-tick, sometimes and up-tick, but essentially it’s a bumpy plateau. None of the conventional players in the industry predicted that plateau, but people like Campbell did. 

Now we can debate over whether the models that peak oilers had were completely accurate. A lot of the models that were being used at the time suggested not a plateau but something that would be more of a curve. But Campbell was quite specific actually. In 2008 I remember speaking to him and he actually had predicted the report that my think tank published, the Institute for Policy Research and Development (IPRD) and he actually predicted a bumpy plateau. He said that as we continue along this plateau, when we first hit it, prices would go up, that would impact the economy and the economy would basically go back into a recession. 

That recession would lower demand and that would create a space for more growth, so we’d then have a period of recovery. And again that recovery would hit the ceiling of those limits of conventional supply and those limits of energy costs. Again we would see price hikes, and again we would hit another crisis, another recession. That seems to have been borne out in the sense that we’ve had consistently high oil prices and consistently volatile oil prices, but they’ve been volatile within a higher range. 

Gas fracking rig

We’ve also seen persistence in the decline of growth. Since 2008 we just haven’t been able to catch up with growth, and in fact the IMF and the World Bank have just slashed their growth forecasts again because we don’t seem to be catching up in time. China is slowing down, India is slowing down. All of this is happening in ways that economists last year were being very bullish about but going against their forecasts and against their models. All of that says to me that what the peak oil geologists have been saying is actually exactly what’s happening now. 

What do you think the convergence of the challenges that you identify and the things that you write about mean for economic growth, what are the implications for economic growth? 

At the moment we face such an amazing and impressive convergence of different challenges, with environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion, and these are obviously affecting our societies here and now. People talk about what’s going to happen in the future but we’re already seeing the impact on our societies in terms of food production, in terms of challenges to the way in which our societies are able to live and source their general industrial production. 

It’s impacting on the prices of everything.  Everything is more expensive now. So we’re already starting to see the impact.  There are some who’ve argued specifically that the kind of very specific global economic slowdown we’ve had since 2008, since the big banking collapse, and the events that have followed, are actually rooted in a wider, deeper problem based on our dependence on certain types of energy, namely fossil fuels. I think that’s a very plausible argument and the argument essentially goes something like, we are effectively in the age where cheap fossil fuels is no longer really an option. 

We’re now moving into the age of very expensive energy, whichever way you look at it. Our complete and utter dependence on cheap fossil fuels to basically do everything means that as we enter this age of more expensive forms of energy we’re facing this fundamental baseline problem, which is undermining the ability of industrial civilisation to do the things that it is used to doing at the cost at which it is used to doing them. This is how the argument goes, that this is what’s keeping growth down, keeping the fundamental dampener on growth. 

Of course, people often talk about debt and the problem of debt. But missing from mainstream analyses is the extent to which the growth that we’ve had since the Second World War, astronomical levels of growth, have been correlated with two things. One, the exploitation of energy, cheap fossil fuels. And two, they’ve also been correlated with the expansion of debt. What’s interesting really about this period is that, especially since the 1970s, when the economic system began to face certain challenges, rates of profit were declining.  There was an effort to outsource manufacturing to poorer developed countries to keep costs down and to maintain higher profits.  All of that stopped working. 

What happened is, banks and investors turned towards financialisation. They realised that actually you can make huge amounts of profit by lending. The more you lend to people, the more they have to pay you back and you can get a return on your interest. That’s an amazing way of making profits. This is no secret, it’s actually a well-known reality and in fact mainstream economists often see debt and the creation of credit as a good thing. They recognise that there’s a link between higher levels of growth and higher levels of credit and debt in the economy. 

Where obviously it falls apart is that none of these economists anticipated how these things would converge and lead to the collapse of the banking system in 2008 and the ongoing recession that we’re seeing now. There’s no sign of it abating. In fact, all the recent statistics that have emerged in this last six months up to now, from the World Bank, from the IMF, from various ratings agencies and major banks, all of them are saying all our growth forecasts have to be slashed, that we were over-optimistic again. 

All the growth in emerging markets that we were banking on to keep the global economy chugging along, it’s actually not going to happen in the way that we originally thought it was going to happen. So once again we’ve realised that these models that we’re relying on are unable to keep up with reality.  I think that’s because they’ve failed to realise that this acceleration of debt and credit and the ability to actually service that debt has been premised on this abundant availability of cheap fossil fuels. 

This was challenged when we saw the peak in conventional oil production and the plateau in conventional oil production from about 2005 onwards. When suddenly conventional oil production was not able to keep up with demand so we had rocketing oil prices which fed into everything else. A number of economists have pointed out that this massive impact on the cost of living is really what has led to people being unable to service their debt. People were suddenly not able to afford their basic expenses, and unable to afford to pay back those debts. The house of cards that we created over the past 30-40 years, this bonanza of virtual growth just collapsed like a bubble. 

I think that’s where we’re at now, we’ve got this choice ahead of us. Governments at the moment are still ostrich-like, thinking, lets just go back to the same old ways of printing money, lots of quantitative easing. Kickstart lending again to get capital flowing. People will be able to borrow again, people will be able to buy things again. It’s all going to be fine. But it’s not going to work. We are already quite over-leveraged and if you look at the levels of debt, we haven’t actually solved that problem at all. A lot of our financial institutions effectively are still insolvent but it’s all been brushed under the carpet. 

The other problem of course is how are we going to sustain this renewed drive to create all this credit and to expand material accumulation with production and consumption, when our resources are just much more expensive. Where is this going? How long can this continue? The model of ‘limits for growth’ that was put out in the 70s by people like Dennis Meadows and others, they were actually quite spot on, and they anticipated that we would start to hit these kinds of limits within the first decade of the 21st century. They said that by 2030, the symptoms that we’re seeing now are going to be much more magnified unless we change business as usual in some way dramatically.  Ultimately we’re looking at the 21st century being the age of the end of growth and we have to start thinking about an alternative economic model.

Nafeez Ahmed

We recognise that material accumulation has played a role in giving us certain amazing technologies and the ability to do things, and obviously there’s scientific innovation. None of those things are in themselves bad things, but they’ve also come at a cost. I think we’re at a point now where we can make that choice, to say maybe we can harness the positives that we’ve developed with industrial civilisation and develop something new, a post-growth, post-industrial form of civilisation that doesn’t reject science and technology but recognises that ultimately you have to be living within the limits of your environmental systems.  Unfortunately we don’t see that happening in mainstream economics. It’s very very difficult to get economists to realise that the economy doesn’t exist in a silo, it’s embedded in the environment.

I went to a talk recently by Lord Nicholas Stern (author of the Stern Report) who said we have to talk about economic growth because otherwise India and China won’t talk to us seriously about climate change.  I thought that was fascinating, firstly from the idea that China gives a flying toss what we do, this really arrogant idea that China is watching every move that we make. But also, I was thinking, I’m sure we could nationally put together a really coherent story that said North Sea oil and gas are running out, we’re going to introduce Tradeable Energy Quotas, we’re going to be embracing this as an opportunity, moving things locally, seeing that as empowering and training etc etc; China may well look at us and think – thank heavens! If  you were asked by Nicholas Stern to compose the new story to tell to China about what things could be like, about what the UK’s new story could be, what would some of its elements be for you? 

That’s a tough one.  I’m with you on the idea that Britain should play a different kind of leadership role. At the moment it’s quite the opposite of what we should be doing. If Nicholas Stern – which he would never do – came to me and said “Nafeez, produce the plan! Save the world!” I would be looking to China.  I did an article just last week on the end of growth and I quoted Jeremy Grantham who’s just put out his latest newsletter.

He’s a billionaire investor, he’s made loads of money predicting all the major stock market bubbles over the last 15 years. Someone who is a capitalist, made loads of money from capitalism, but he speaks a great deal about the problems of capitalism and about the environmental limits to capital accumulation. He’s talking a lot about a new kind of model. He doesn’t actually say no growth, but he talks about the need for a new model which is much more in parity with the environment. The language there is quite interesting.

Maybe he doesn’t go all the way, but he’s actually said something about China, and it’s interesting how he’s said that his last great hope is China, which of all the great powers has invested the most in renewable energy, is actually quite rapidly trying to adapt to climate change in certain ways, looking at their urban planning and things like that and now thinking about their problems of pollution. He is looking to China as the next great hope, that maybe China will realise that this is what’s coming and they will embark on a 20 to 30 year crash plan to transition towards a much more stable economy.

He’s hoping that if China does this then it will force the rest of the world to think well, if China’s going to do that then we’re going to have to keep up with that and that would spur similar kind of efforts everywhere else. I don’t know the plausibility of that, but I do think that if a country did decide “wait a minute, we’re going to face up to the reality that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the economic system and the way it’s working and the way it links up to politics, and we need to change this paradigm completely and move towards something else”, I actually think that a country like Britain with its record, people would look at Britain and say wow, maybe we should start doing this. 

To some extent that’s already happening. If you look to Germany, by all means it’s not a perfect example, there are lots of problems in Germany. But looking at the way the renewable energy sector has worked there, it is an inspiration. They’ve managed to get around 50% of their power from renewables, and I think 50% of that is owned by people, which is quite an inspiring example. Of course the government has feed-in tariffs and things like that, but it’s by no means a crash programme. It’s still very much within the existing paradigm of market incentives and all the rest of it. But they’ve gone pretty far with it, which shows that there’s huge potential. But I do think that beyond just looking at renewable energy technologies we have to face up to this reality which perhaps Nicholas Stern didn’t quite face up to. 

The reality is that the astronomical levels of growth that we’ve had have been based on these astronomical energy inputs. Renewable energy technologies will not enable us to have that level of continual material production and accumulation. What they might be able to do is provide jobs, provide stability, a cleaner infrastructure, help us transition towards an economy which has a lot more equilibrium and a lot more eternal equality and sustain adequate levels of material production and consumption. I don’t think they would sustain the kind of exponential growth that neo-liberal economists want to see re-ignited. I don’t think that’s possible. That’s the missing story from the low-carbon, high growth mythology that’s being promulgated by the Coalition government at the moment. 

Not that their policy is low-carbon, it’s still very high carbon, but I don’t think that’s really a feasible story. It’s facing up to the reality that, as people like Richard Wilkinson and others have been telling us, we’ve got a certain level of material growth and it’s provided a certain level of needs, but beyond that, beyond providing those physical needs it doesn’t make us happy. It doesn’t fulfil us. It doesn’t actually sustain that level of wellbeing and happiness that people really thrive off. When we’re thinking about growth and prosperity we do need to look to redefining what these mean. We need to look towards an economic model that recognises yes, there is a place for growth and there is a place for making sure that people have their basic needs met, and they’re able to have a great place to live and all of that. 

But there has to be something greater than that and I think all of the challenges that we’re facing now show that material levels of growth can only contribute so much to wellbeing and so much to a really happy society. It’s all these other values, whether it’s education, arts and culture, generosity, compassion, all those things, which actually communities thrive off. When we begin to realise that, we realise that the model of this alternative post-growth economy that we’re looking at is one where people are much more empowered.

We’re used to globalisation, we get up, buy our things from supermarkets or big chains which have the produced hundreds of thousands of miles away. Whereas can we move towards something which is a lot more localised which I think is a Transition Town idea. It’s spearheading this very, very exciting issue of communities taking off. I’m really excited by that because what really inspires me about it is that Transition doesn’t just come up and say we’ve got this big manifesto and these are all the answers.

It says those hierarchical systems that we’ve had before, where we’ve got government and certain stakeholder corporations telling us what to do, those have failed. Now it’s really up to people to take control of those stories and start creating them from the grassroots, from the ground up. That’s what’s really exciting for me, because there is the potential for this amazing alternative paradigm where it’s all about people and people taking control. 

Our theme for July at was The Power of Just Doing Stuff and looking from different perspectives at this idea of the power that sits, particularly in the context you set out earlier in this interview, in terms of those really big global challenges that we face. What do you think is the power that arises from people just getting on and finding they want to be part of the solution? 

I think fundamentally it changes the whole paradigm of how a society should run and what is the driving force of a society, what is the driving force of politics. At the moment our economy is caught up in a political system which is very hierarchical, very democratic, where we’ve seen an erosion of democracy for a whole range of reasons. It’s linked up with the nature of capitalism, we’ve already seen the scandal of Lynton Crosby and the link to fossil fuels in Australia, the link to dodgy private companies trying to take over the NHS, and tobacco companies. That’s the story of politics at the moment.

Effectively the democratic system in many ways.  It’s great that we have one and in many ways is better than other things out there, but it’s a broken system. I think the idea of people just getting up there and saying “now wait a minute, shall I just wait for government to fail at the next negotiating table for climate change, shall I wait or push government to do this, push government to do that? Or can I do something that will tangibly affect my life, the lives of my family and friends, the lives of the whole community in which I’m living?” … that could eventually transform not just local politics, but in the long run it could actually have a national impact.

I think that’s the potential of people just getting up and saying enough is enough, I don’t need to wait for someone else, for my representatives to do something for me or for us, I can do it myself and start moving towards that. It might not be everything that I might hope to see, but if I don’t do that now, then in a way I’m allowing, conceding power to these other entities whereas if I just take that step forward and take action now, I’m actually taking control and taking ownership. Actually taking control and taking a bit of that political power back. I think that’s why it’s really important to lobby and to be voting and to be engaged because obviously if you retract from that space then that allows that system to continue without anyone saying anything to it and that’s a bad thing. 

But at the same time we should also be pragmatic about how far you can go with that process in itself. There are these systemic problems with that process and unless there’s a radical change or shift, unless there’s massive populist pressure to begin moving towards a different vision, that system isn’t going to change by itself. We need actually to have actions which are about taking ownership of our lives here and now. That doesn’t mean just like the Occupy movement and the spin-offs from that and there’s lots of ideas about direct action and civil disobedience and again I think a lot of that is great and it’s very important.

But at the same time I would like to see people who are involved in direct action and things like that actually taking the ideas of Transition for example and saying “well I might not just want to occupy a public space, I might want to occupy a public space and grow some food. I might want to occupy a public space and start having workshops around what this alternative society should look like and actually start creating it here and now. How can we create a new method of exchange?  How can we change the nature of our local economy? How can we help our council estates work towards a vision where they’re relying on clean energy which could benefit our local community and contribute to dealing with some of the problems that our young people are facing? Let’s empower and enfranchise our young people”.

Transition Streets leaflet, Totnes.

Those conversations are starting to take off and I’m really excited to see that Transition is doing a lot of these things and there are people in these different movements who are speaking to each other now. We need to have more of that catalysing of cross-fertilisation of these discussions across our different groups in order to have a more systemic and more holistic conversation towards what is the vision we would like to see, how can we collectively begin exploring different pathways to doing that. I think if we did that, and we are doing that, there are these seeds now being planted, but if we started moving towards this more assertively in our different communities, I think it would have a potentially really amazing impact on the national story. It could change it. 

I think the government is already realising, the British government certainly, that Transition is an idea they need to take note of, and if they haven’t adopted it it is something where sometimes the language has been used, sometimes it’s just a case of them engaging generally with Transition. You can see they realise that you can’t afford to just ignore it completely. That’s a sign of a small victory and something we could build on from that. 

You spend a lot of your time in geo-politics, writing about these enormous challenges. How do you cope with that yourself? What mechanisms do you take so that it doesn’t just become overwhelming and you get burnt out and exhausted? How do you manage that within your own life and what tips do you have for other people who might be increasingly immersed in looking at these issues? 

Whenever people ask me this I always say I’m a short term pessimist and a long term optimist. I think if you look at what’s happening here and now, if you look at the geo-political impact of what’s happening say, in the Middle East, countries like Egypt, which is actually a really interesting example. You’ve got a situation, you can see the intractability of it. A lot of the problems that Egypt is facing are really rooted in these issues that people who are looking at peak oil and climate change, actually it’s all happening in Egypt.

Climate change, peak oil played very key roles in destabilising the Egyptian government, combined with inequality and political grievances and all the rest of it. You really have a microcosm there of what can happen when a society which, as you know, is 10 years past its peak of production – it’s facing the ravages of climate change. The impact on water scarcity and food production, there is rampant unemployment. There’s a repressive state and no sign really of a clear solution. 

It can be very disempowering to look at that and think “where do we go with that?” But I’ve always looked at this in the long term and the kind of idea I try to get across to people is that when you look at all of these trends globally and look at the long term where it’s going to go, the reality is that the 21st century is the end of industrial civilisation as we know it. By the end of this century this civilisation cannot survive in its current form. It will not be here.

Something will have to take its place, whether it will be something very negative, a horrible dystopia, post-apocalyptic kind of thing, or something which is a lot more positive, a lot more utopian, or something in between. Ultimately, that choice of what that world is going to look like is really down to us, and the future is quite open. I remember a phrase that Noam Chomsky once said, that effectively says that if you’re going to say we’re all doomed and there’s no point in doing anything, you become part of the problem and create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and are no longer basically of any use to humanity because you’ve just said this is how it’s going to be and have now disempowered yourself.

But if you remain open to the possibility of change, even if it’s a slim possibility, even if we recognise that it’s a small probability, if you remain open to that probability and fight for it then you become part of the shift towards that. And then you remain open to the reality that there is a possibility and we could create that. 

I think it’s really important that we look long term. It’s clear that crazy things are happening now, and a lot of crazy things are going to continue to happen for the next 2 to 3 decades. Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. But in the long term, I think there’s a lot of potential for change. Even within the last 10-20 years, when you get bogged down with the darkness of some of the things that are happening, it’s easy to forget that actually we’ve had a lot of progress, certainly in terms of waking up.

If you go back 10 or 20 years, if you started talking about energy depletion or climate change or foreign policy or the problems with the banks, people would have laughed at you and you would have been in a tiny minority. But now you find that, look at all the opinion polls and with all the climate change deniers and all the obfuscation in the media, the lack of understanding, the lack of holistic thinking, still you have overwhelming majorities of people recognising that climate change is real, it’s a problem.

People are concerned about our energy use. They’re concerned about the banks – nobody trusts the banks. Very few people trust the politicians, they’re very disillusioned about the current political system. Very few people believe that the Iraq war was a good thing, we’re very skeptical about the Iraq war. Most people want our troops to come home from Afghanistan. Across the board there’s actually been a surprising convergence of public opinion on a lot of different issues. If you look at them in a values-based way they point towards values which are much more about peace, about making sure that we’re living with more respect for our environment, looking towards equality, looking towards maintaining steady levels of employment in our societies, and they all of them de-legitimise the existing system in different ways.

What’s missing from that is the coherence of the alternative, the coherence of two things, the diagnosis and the prognosis. The people are confused about why these things are happening and they’re confused about where we should go with them. That’s what’s holding us back, I think, from developing a viable alternative. Instead of alternative visions or movements we should do stuff effectively. Because of that lack of coherence in understanding and vision, that explains why we’ve had this eruption of social movements in the last few years, especially since the major banking collapse in 2008.

We’ve had the Occupy movement, we’ve had the Arab Spring, we’ve still got lots of protest movements going on, breaking out in Turkey, Brazil, but we’re not quite sure where to go with those movements. What that says to me is that we shouldn’t assume, from looking just at the bad things, that everything is really bad. People are starting to wake up, people are recognising that something is wrong and they want a change but they don’t know what they want or don’t know where to go. That’s why it’s so important that people who are already active and exploring ideas and solutions recognise that all we need to do is start speaking out and giving more coherence to that story and communicating it on a wider basis.

You’ll start to see there’s a very receptive audience. People are really hungry actually for answers, hungry for solutions, hungry for alternatives, so really this is actually an unprecedented opportunity. It’s an unprecedented crisis but it’s also an opportunity to dream-weave and say “well actually everything is going to go to pot over the next 20-30 years if we don’t change, so here’s an opportunity to think outside the box and think that 30 years ago it might have sounded ridiculous to say that we can have all our communities growing their own food and living a prosperity which is based on wellbeing and not just on unlimited growth. Now we can actually talk about that, and when you think about it, you won’t just get laughed out of the room.

The mainstream doesn’t have the answers, so I think there is a massive opportunity to create an alternative. It’s going to be a big struggle and it’s going to get really bad. It’s going to get nasty. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a way out in the end.