Escape routes: Fleeing Vesuvius – which way should we go?

All contributors

Compiled by Caroline Whyte

The editors and I asked this books’ contributors to send us their recommendations for things that could be done on a personal, community, national and international level to help prepare for the future. Naturally enough, our request was interpreted differently by different people: some contributors focused exclusively on the subject of their articles in the book, such as the need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions or undertake financial reforms, whereas others took the opportunity to provide much more general advice.

Additionally, not everyone was convinced that it’s helpful to think in terms of escape routes at all. Lucy McAndrew wrote in this regard that “the bottom line is that there is no escape route. If we have created an unstoppable economic domino effect, we’ve also created, with more devastating consequences, an unstoppable environmental effect — in terms of climate change and in terms of biodiversity collapse”. As we’ll see though, she doesn’t think we should just despair over this situation; she has some ideas for concrete action which I’ve included further down.

Emer O’Siochru also believes that “there is nowhere to escape to”, but her reasoning is somewhat different. She goes on:

“We are already reasonably well placed here in Ireland compared to anywhere else in the developed world. We should instead stand our ground […] There is no single cataclysmic [event] to escape from. The events we fear are in the now, happening daily and weekly, all the time. These events will build, breach a threshold, cause major disruption followed by a re-adjustment and form a new baseline from which events will build again. Whether we allow the disruption/s to be so complete that substantive recovery is not possible is entirely in our own hands. The future is ours to create out of this process; nothing is predetermined.”

On that note, let’s start looking at recommendations for the different levels of action.

Personal action

Re-skilling and staying healthy

Most of the contributors share a belief in the importance of developing skills that would make us less reliant on the industrialised economy. David Korowicz suggests that “an investment in knowledge and skills is the wisest and cheapest of investments”. Brian Davey describes how most people in low-energy civilisations are skilled in basic food growing and preparation, making and repairing clothes and maintaining their shelter: “Activities and training that pre-figure these basics are most useful — and many people [in industrialised countries] don’t have these skills, which are not valued.”

In a similar vein, Nate Hagens believes that “novelty activities” that are plentiful in the oil age will die out and be replaced by “activities more aligned with human time scales — like gardening, or art, or sports”, and he too believes that it’s a good idea to get involved with such activities sooner rather than later. He adds that “human capital — one’s health, skills and talents — will start to replace the security of being able to buy anything with enough digits in the bank — indeed getting back to top physical health is one of the best investments of time and resources one can make, irrespective of future resource availability”.

Oscar Kjellberg suggests that we should “take an interest in basic food growing and preparation and shelter maintenance”, while Lucy McAndrew says we need to “practice basic husbandry.” Anne Ryan comments that “with gardening, transport, technology, recycling, cooking and growing, you can pass on what you know and learn from others.” More detailed ideas for developing food security can be found in Bruce Darrell’s panel immediately below.

Developing a food security strategy

Bruce Darrell

Start by assuming that the land producing your food is deficient in essential minerals and has an imbalance of major nutrients. Assume that the food produced will be deficient in key minerals and will be of minimal nutritional value. Assume that this food may prevent you from starving, but will not sustain or improve your health. Your key task is to correct mineral deficiencies and balance soil fertility.

Educate yourself about the relationship between:

  • the availability and balance of the minerals in the soil
  • the productivity and health of plants grown in that soil
  • the nutritional quality of the food produced
  • the health of the animals and humans that consume that food
  • the amount of resources expended on healthcare
  • the extent of nutrient cycling used
  • the overall resilience of your family/community/society

Develop a Food Security Strategy. Determine what food security would look like for your family and community in two, five and ten years’ time. Develop a map or plan on how to achieve these goals which would answer the following questions:

  • How much food will be produced and what type of diet is most appropriate?
  • Who will be producing food and how are they going to get the necessary skills?
  • Where will the food be produced and what facilities and transformations are needed?
  • How will knowledge and information be obtained, recorded and shared?
  • How will access be secured to the land, facilities and seeds needed to produce food?
  • How will the water, minerals and fertility be sourced and cycled?
  • How will supplies of food be stored, processed and distributed?
  • How will surpluses and deficiencies be exchanged within the community and with other communities?

Map your land and the surrounding landscape to determine which areas are needed for ecological services and biodiversity, which areas can be best used for intensive food production, and which areas can be mined for nutrients, material and soil to improve the first two. This ecological triage will see the long-term degradation of parts of the landscape but the significant improvement in the quality and productivity of other areas.

Test the soil to determine the fertility availability and balance, the deficiencies of trace minerals and potential toxicity caused by excessive amounts of heavy metals and pollutants. Develop strategies for dealing with both the deficiencies and toxicity, including changing the location and method of food production if necessary.

Concentrate efforts on smaller areas of land rather than having a diffuse effect over a larger area. It is better to produce smaller amounts of higher-quality food than to try to produce large amounts of low-quality food with increased risk of losing everything.

Use remaining access to money and affordable energy to import fertility and trace minerals, to make major structural changes to the landscape, to build necessary infrastructure and to purchase tools and equipment that will assist in future food production.

Import the broad spectrum of trace elements in the form found in seaweed or other plant materials, ground rock dust or sea salt. Import concentrated forms of specific nutrients that you know are deficient in your soil and carefully incorporate them, ideally through the composting process. Do not let a strict adherence to organic principles or beliefs in natural gardening methods prevent you from quickly fixing what is deficient.

Increase the nutrient-retention capability and biological activity of your soil by increasing the organic content of the soil, incorporate biochar if appropriate, and change the land-management practices to reduce soil erosion and leaching of minerals.

Capture the fertility and carbon that currently flows through your community. This can be done through composting, sheet mulching, anaerobic digestion, production of biochar, and through fungal decomposition. Incorporate this material into the land designated to produce your food, or store it until this land becomes available.

Restrict exports of fertility from your land and community, unless you have an abundant and sustainable supply of fresh minerals and fertility to replace what is exported. If minerals are difficult or expensive to obtain, do not sell or trade food as a means of obtaining cash or other materials and goods.

Develop sustainable and robust nutrient cycling systems so that all of the minerals and fertility that are harvested is returned to the land. This includes human wastes.

Test the nutritional density of your food by using a simple refractometer to determine the amount of sugars, vitamins, minerals and other solids that are dissolved in the juice of vegetables, fruit and plant sap. The nutritional density should increase as mineral deficiencies are corrected, fertility is balanced and production methods are changed to increase the biological health of your soil. If it doesn’t, you are doing something wrong. Food with high nutritional density will improve your health, and is a sign of a healthy and abundant ecosystem.

Wise spending

Dan Sullivan thinks we should consider whether we are reinforcing existing power structures with our spending, or helping to change them: “Regardless of the environmental consequences, money spent on land and natural resources is money given to privileged title holders, while money spent on labor products is money given to your fellow producers. Although all products involve both labor and natural resources, the proportions vary widely.”

Patrick Andrews emphasises the effects of our decisions as individual consumers on the economy and environment. He writes “I recommend you really reflect on who you are supporting when you spend money. What is the nature of the businesses you are engaging with? What’s their purpose and what is your relationship to them? What impact do they have in your community? Can you influence them? We tend to underestimate what impact we can have as customers — by being more conscious of all the choices we make each day when we spend our money, we can have a positive influence on the businesses we engage with.”

Corinna Byrne has a specific suggestion along those lines: “if consumers insist on detailed food-labelling based on the carbon footprint of products, this would help to drive agriculture to reduce emissions.”

Material investments: choosing frugality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Dmitry Orlov, among others, discusses spending more in terms of its personal effects than its effects on the economy as a whole. This fits with his general analysis, which suggests that the larger economic system will probably collapse so there’s little point in large-scale consumer activism. He thinks you should “make arrangements to lose your money slowly over time rather than all at once in a single financial confidence hiccup. Withdraw your money from circulation by tying it down in durable objects that are guaranteed to have residual use value in a non-industrial context.”

Dan Sullivan shares this emphasis on frugality: “Personally, use as little land and natural resources as you can without unduly hampering yourself. Repair rather than replace, and look for products whose value reflect labor costs rather than resource costs.”

John Sharry believes you should “remember to make the most of the wealth and resources you currently have, as these will be much more scarce in the future.” Oscar Kjellberg advises you to “get rid of your unsustainable assets and make yourself debt free. Involve yourself and your money in a community with natural resources to fall back on in case something happens.” Richard Douthwaite also believes that we need to cultivate frugality and build community bonds: “Each family should try to reduce its outgoings as far as possible because it will not be able to rely on an outside income in future. It should therefore link with its neighbours to meet common needs.” As we shall see, this theme of building community is a very popular one.

David Korowicz comments that “we will never be materially richer than now, what we have is a precious resource to be used wisely.” He describes what he calls “resilient investments”, the aim of which, he says, “is not to give a conventional return-on-investment. It is to preserve your welfare in an uncertain future by providing something that is likely to be useful and important in that future. It does not have to make financial sense now.” He believes that “now is the time to liquidate assets held abroad (property, investments); and non-resilient ones at home.” He also thinks that “real assets, production & skills” will hold more value in relative terms than “cash, equities, bonds and much property.”

He has some suggestions for specific things to invest in: “Just because energy and food have the most direct impact on the collapse of systems does not mean that we should just think only in terms of investing directly in renewable energy and food. We might also think of workhorses, trailers, and harnesses; containers and demi-johns; barges and sail boats; shovels & hoes; basic chemicals; waste re-cycling; curing & preserving; bottling & canning; forestry & hydro-saws; reserve communications systems; storage facilities; and so on.”

Corinna Byrne stresses the need for personal investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions: “Switching from the use of peat for home heating to renewable technologies such as solar and geothermal power is recommended. The installation of small wind turbines to power one’s home will also help. When it comes to food, much of what we eat is produced under emissions-intense conditions. Growing your own and purchasing locally may contribute to reducing emissions.”

With regard to energy use, it may be better to keep things as simple as possible, even if that means losing some efficiency. David Korowicz writes “Don’t be seduced by the most efficient technology. It is far better to have something simple and locally repairable, even if inefficient, than something highly dependent upon globalised systems for upgrades, components and repairs.”

Dmitry Orlov thinks we should “consider what’s coming in the context of emergency preparedness — except that this emergency is not expected to end. Stockpile supplies and learn skills to maintain and repair your most important possessions and equipment for as long as possible after new products and replacement parts and supplies are no longer manufactured. Devise alternatives for heating, cooking and transportation that do not rely on fossil fuels. Find alternatives to inhabiting the landscape that do not rely on current built-up infrastructure and provide you with direct access to food (plants and animals).”

Avoiding a bunker mentality

A number of the contributors believe that there is a danger of over-emphasising the role that self-sufficiency should play. Graham Barnes is one of them. He writes that “despite a personal predilection for living in the moment, I would place ‘taking an interest in the future’ as #1 on a personal action level — above the other contender — reskilling/self-sufficiency — which I support and admire but can be part of a bunker mentality.”

Lucy McAndrew makes a moral argument for building community: “[…] we must, for the sake of all that is valuable in the human, resist the urge to shrink our moral circle. We must overcome the tendency that fear will imbue us with to fortify our own ‘castles’ at the expense of community.”

She goes on to suggest: “Instead, and against every fear-mongering product and media-call, we must create links within villages and towns and recognise that even those who think they are against us are actually for us, since they, too, are for survival.” Some readers might question whether being for survival means being for everyone’s survival, or for the survival of one’s own community, or even just one’s own self.

But in any case, there are other practical reasons to avoid a bunker mentality, some of which David Korowicz identifies: “Your wealth will not provide you with a separate peace. Firstly, because most of what is regarded as wealth will vanish. Secondly, we are all dependent on the globalised economy, if it fails, if fails us all. Thirdly, you are unlikely to survive without the skills and networks of others. Finally, sitting upon your hoard surrounded by the anxious and destitute is not safe.”

Emer O’Siochru describes the negative effects of a bunker mentality on the larger community: “Attempting to recreate self-sufficiency at family level in basic food, energy and shelter is not a realistic strategy if generally adopted. Others have pointed out its flaws if adopted unilaterally. Its widespread adoption would certainly accelerate knowledge destruction and social breakdown. It is exactly the same failed strategy adopted by the Congested District Board and the later Land Commission that so undermined the village communities on the Western seaboard, caused centuries of emigration and destroyed the Irish language.”

The role of specialisation

Emer O’Siochru writes that “specialisation fostered by the growth of settlements is still the same powerful wealth and well-being building tool it was when it pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages. Increasing local life-support system integration requires more and better specialist technical knowledge, not less.”

In apparent contrast, Brian Davey believes that “most of us are too specialised for our own good. The chief danger is to think that we are special and that our unique information and skills, which currently fit a high-energy, highly specialised economy, will remain indispensable.”

It seems likely that in the future almost all of us will spend more of our time on activities that are geared to basic day-to-day survival, such as growing food, chopping wood, making and mending clothes, maintaining shelters and looking after livestock. However, specialisation will have an important role to play as well; it just won’t be dependent on high-energy inputs anymore.

Davey is probably right in suggesting that people who spend a great deal of their time in front of a computer screen, such as myself, will experience some big changes in their lives. Instead we’ll need people like coopers, a profession that’s not very much in demand at the moment but that used to be quite important (my great-grandfather was one). Another profession likely to experience a resurgence in popularity is blacksmithing. And some existing professions will remain too, of course: we’ll need expert plasterers to build the kind of ship hulls that Dmitry Orlov describes in his second article, midwives, potters, architects who know how to use local building materials, vets, bakers — the list goes on.

An uncluttered mental landscape

Anne Ryan emphasises simplicity, both in material and in psychological terms: “it is always easier to cultivate hope if one is coping well with present circumstances. We can all use enough to create personal stability. Avoid being too busy, or having a surfeit of possessions; cut down on unnecessary decisions. It is true liberation to know how to live well with just the right amount of material accumulation. Talk to friends and family members about these issues.”

Lucy McAndrew discusses the need for imaginative thinking: “Remember that empathy is reaching out with your imagination, it is a stretch, an extravagance, and therefore it is characteristic, essential to what we are as animals. What extravagant humanity has done is to reach out into the material realm and ensure its comfort, at the cost of the future. Now we have to use our imaginations extravagantly to square the circle of how we can maintain our own comfort in the face of increasing discomforting environmental realities, and in the face of an increasing knowledge of the effects of our actions.”

Graham Barnes, as already mentioned, believes it is important to try to think clearly about the future. He points out that “most of us lead busy lives. Much has been written about the work/life balance and there has been a tempering of the American Dream ‘work for success’ ethic with a search for ‘quality time’. But the zeitgeist is changing more fundamentally than that now. Work and quality of life are two legs of the stool; the third is future. Securing a sensible work/life balance on its own is a self-centred agenda and only an unstable equilibrium is possible without the third leg.”

Nate Hagens also emphasises the need to take an accurate view of the future: “Ultimately, we have been living beyond our aggregate means for sometime and are presently in a society wide ‘Wile E. Coyote’ moment. Given the prevalence of ‘unexpected reward’ as a driver of our behavior, to lower our expectations of the future, and redefine for ourselves and our family what we consider ‘success’ will be a psychological robust strategy that will serve us well in many ways. Who knows, if enough people get healthy, make new friends, redefine wealth, and change their skill sets to something useful for when the fossil pixie dust starts to disappear, we will have not only improved our individual futures but in doing so made a more resilient, sustainable culture as well.” As we’ve seen in Davie Philip’s article, movements such as the Transition Towns one are built on the premise that the future need not be uniformly worse than the present, but rather, as Hagens implies, that progress will be measured in more accurate ways than the present practice of conflating it with an increase in GDP and personal spending.

John Sharry comments that “being aware of the coming peak oil/climate crises can take its personal toll on an individual’s mental health. Seriously contemplating the consequences can cause you to feel anxiety, depression and at times despair. Further, because your awareness will take you outside the large-scale denial in mainstream society, you are likely to feel an ‘outsider’ or marginalised. Certainly if you talk publicly about the problems you can be perceived as a bit of ‘crank’ or even a ‘kill joy’ socially. Preserving your own mental health and well-being is as important as taking action and there are many things that can help.”

He advises us to “seek support from like-minded people who are share your concerns and who don’t belong to the mainstream denial. Joining an environmentally aware organisation such as Transition Towns, Cultivate or Feasta will bring you into contact with a support community.” He believes we have to “accept that the majority of people will not accept the problems and be largely in denial until a major crises hits. See your job as building an ‘oasis’ of awareness and preparedness with a small group of like-minded people.”

He continues: “Many people who face a ‘fatal diagnosis’ report that after an initial period of grief or despair, the news can make their daily life more precious as they learn to appreciate what they have. Learn to enjoy the moment and to prioritise the things that matter the most to you in your daily life such as connection with family and friends etc.”

David Korowicz also emphasises the importance of friendship, in particular its psychological benefits: “you will have to stand up and put your neck on the line [since the longer you wait to take action the more options will be lost]. It can be lonely. Find some fellow travellers to share in the trials and triumphs; and the hilarious predicament in which you find yourselves.”

Nate Hagens adds that “for many reasons if there is less stuff to go around, and higher possibility of certain stuff not being available, having more friends, (and a variety of them) will help both individual and community trajectories.” Let’s go on then to investigate how some of those community trajectories might play out.

Local/community action

Almost all contributors place particular emphasis on community-level action. Emer O’Siochru writes that “the most effective scale to intervene is the local or community scale so I will disregard the others to give it its due prominence. A resilient local community can act as a circuit breaker to halt or slow a cascading collapse of the larger systems and provide absolutely essential support for individuals and families while they adjust to the new reality. My recommendations are both practical and political […] Get thee to a village or small rural town. A ghost estate house might be got very cheap. If you can afford to, hold on to your rural house as a summer dacha and/or your city house as the best place to be in a sudden or single emergency event.”

Dan Sullivan thinks that when you’re deciding where to live you should “vote with your feet but vote intelligently. The municipalities, states and countries that get the biggest shares of their revenue from taxes on land, natural resources and pollution will have more stable economies and more affordable lifestyles for productive citizens than those which tax productivity.” He believes we need to “show local governments how they can prosper from untaxing productivity and up-taxing land, pollution, and resource extraction to the degree that those things happen in their neighborhoods.”

Building community

Dmitry Orlov suggests you “make connections with people around you and work to identify ways to gain access to what you need to survive in absence of an official economy. Convert virtual communities to face-to-face interaction. Make enough personal connections so that you can go “electronically dark” if the network fails or take yourself off the map if the political climate turns predatory.”

Brian Davey also takes a pragmatic approach: “the issue is not: what can I (or I and my family) do to survive the coming crunch?” — it is what can the communities and networks that I belong to do to survive? And what is my contribution to the collective process? As a rule of thumb, if you play a role looking after the community in these basic activities, it is likely that the community will look after you. Important in this respect is to provide support for those members of communities that are vulnerable — the elderly, disabled, sick.”

He believes that at present we tend to neglect our ties with neighbours in favour of more geographically distant relationships: “[…] many of us are members of very widely dispersed communities who keep in touch via electronic and digital communications and we may have very limited near contact with people who live in close geographical proximity. In a crunch situation distant relationships may remain important but, for the provision of essential supplies, it is obviously closer communities, and what they are doing collectively, that are important. Many of us don’t really belong to local communities, so the first step may be getting to know neighbours. People eating together is a good start — the word companion comes from the Latin ‘com pani’ — with bread.” Neighbourhood street parties and potlucks, where everyone contributes something, have a role to play here.

Davey continues: “This may seem very banal and we may see ourselves as having a more important leadership role, becoming a hero or heroine of local, national or international enviromental politics. In fact, it is not the leading lights who make fine speeches and internet videos that are the most important when things start to get difficult — but the ones who can train others how to bake bread, and how to grow the grain to make it with….”

“Anyone reading this book is unlikely to be a complete social isolate and without any practical skills at all — but if you are — then just join something. A community garden is ideal. If you look you will find a few odd people out there who have also seen the chaos coming…like those in the Transition Initiatives. Far more than worrying about how you are going to invest your remaining money, though that’s important — get involved!”

Similar approaches to building community are suggested by Anne Ryan: “Join any of the existing movements: for local food, a local credit union, a local exchange system, swap club or transition-town group. Or join a group campaigning for carbon quotas or a citizens’ income. You can also bring your knowledge and your questions into groups to which you already belong, such as church, trade union, sports club, study group or workplace.”

How big should a community be?

The answer to this depends on what the community is trying to do. Graham Barnes comments that “actions appropriate for a ‘precinct’ of maybe 150 people are rather different from those appropriate for a ‘demos’ of 30,000. Feasta is arguably a precinct; a Liquidity Network [for developing a local currency] probably needs a catchment area of 30,000 or so for critical mass and substantial self-sufficiency. Community currencies are an important part of the emerging localist agenda, but only a part of it.”

Community size can make a difference in the ease of spreading information. Barnes explains that “in a precinct you may be preaching to the converted. In the process the precinct becomes better informed but can create more distance between the group and the man in the street. In a demos, you have to spread the word with more accessible and less ‘technical’ messages, and [the Liquidity Network] must become expert at this type of dialogue.”

Community activities

Laurence Matthews thinks communities need to engage in meaningful debate about climate change: “The need at local level is […] to change public opinion: for people to argue in the pubs, in the shops, in the churches, and not least to their local political representatives, for the need to take climate change seriously; to counter the complacent feeling that recycling and cutting down on plastic bags are in some way an adequate response to climate change. Profligate use of carbon, e.g. frequent air travel, has to be seen as irresponsible and socially unacceptable, in the same way that drink-driving has become. This will take courage, persistence and diplomacy.”

In order to discuss important issues effectively, we sometimes need to take a step back and discuss the discussion itself. In this vein, Patrick Andrews reminds us to reflect on the manner in which communities function, and to try and ensure that everyone is getting a say: “At community level, I suggest you pay attention to the ways that individuals interact when they get together in your community. Are the discussions dominated by a few people, or is everyone’s voice heard. Do the structures encourage proper conversations? Are the voices of both men and women able to be heard? What about young and old?”

Lucy McAndrew also focuses on the emotional health of communities: “we must practice trust and empathy, not at the expense of ourselves (we must learn self-defence, too!) but so that we can create a meme, a mental virus which will infect and inspire the people around us and allow us to deal with any forthcoming crisis in the most dignified, the most respectful and, in the highest sense, the most human way imaginable.”

In addition to these ideas, what tangible actions should communities take? Richard Douthwaite believes they should strive to become as economically independent as possible: “Every community should try to meet its basic needs from its own resources and any necessities brought in from outside should be largely to increase choice and balance by similar goods going the other way — exchanging apples for oranges, for example.” One can imagine a scenario such as that described in Orlov’s second article, where apples and oranges are transported by small sailing boats, along with spices and other goods that travel relatively easily and are in high demand.

Several contributors discuss the topic of community finance. David Korowicz suggests that “investing within your community makes you safer by making the community stronger.” He thinks we should “invest to avoid stranded assets. At some stage in an investment cycle there may be a major disruption that will halt the project. Ensure that useful assets will be left behind. For example, don’t front-load grid infrastructure investment; develop localised energy generation first.”

Richard Douthwaite elaborates on the idea of investing within one’s community: “Every community should have its own investment organisation to allow its residents to invest in activities in their own community. This will enable them to take a holistic view of possible investments. They will be able to assess their social and environmental return as well as the income they are likely to generate.”

Oscar Kjellberg has a similar proposal for developing local investment unions: “Stimulate people to reflect on who they are supporting when they are saving money. Find ways to attract savings from investors who want to save with your community and its assets rather than paper assets at stock exchanges or in equity funds that will lose even more of their value as the oil crunch worsens. Develop local enterprises through a community investment bank which should be a place where savers and entrepreneurs can socialise and discuss the development of the community. Create a local business alliance around it.” Community-supportive investment tools such as the equity partnerships and local energy bonds described in this book would fit in neatly with this approach.

To these suggestions we can add the many that Davie Philip makes in his article on the Transition Towns movement. One that particularly struck me is that “as a community [you need to] identify and strengthen your physical, social and human assets. Value the tangible and the intangible, especially the skills and talents of local people.” As mentioned above, setting up a local currency could help with this.

Limits to community action

For certain issues, however, it seems clear that action on a local or community level is insufficient; one of these is climate change. This cannot be tackled by local initiatives alone as one community’s good work could very easily be undone by another’s negligence. Laurence Matthews writes, with regard to this, that “developing local resilience etc. is all very well in itself and as an awareness-raising exercise, but the urgent need is for serious national and global action.” So now let’s look at those types of action in more detail.

National action

The differences in contributors’ approaches become more pronounced at this level. Anne Ryan writes that “if you find you are having success with a local movement, you could go a bit further afield, into national civil society, international civil society, even into government. That is not to say that we should all try to get elected; it is also important to maintain civil society — all those groupings and activities that exist outside the state and the free-trade market — so that government is always reminded of its responsibilities.”

This approach assumes that the current political system, with its emphasis on the roles played by different stakeholders such as governments and business, will be viable in the future. However, Graham Barnes believes that it cannot deal adequately with the problems we are facing. He writes: “It is impossible to know whether politicians are dim, lazy or think they perceive a self-interest in the dysfunctional status quo. And pointless trying to find out. It seems likely that the nation state will be more of an obstacle than a progressive partner for the changes needed. It is in any case relatively powerless compared to international business. So I wouldn’t exactly say ‘don’t bother’ with national action agendas, but I would demand proof of seriousness from any national politicians before spending any time with them.”

In contrast, Dan Sullivan thinks we need to avoid demonizing those in power: “[we should] focus on what is right or wrong rather than who is right or wrong. Some of the great changes of history were triggered by people from among the privileged elite realizing that their privileges were wrong and doing something about it.”

Emer O’Siochru, for her part, believes that “politics really do matter. The Nation State is not dead nor should we wish its demise. Political power is useful, at the very least to remove bureaucratic obstacles, and at best to undertake the fiscal and monetary reforms that could really help us. People who are aware of the crisis should not be too proud nor too clever to march in the streets.”

Anne Ryan agrees with O’Siochru that large-scale collective action is worthwhile: “Efforts for change are most successful when people work together. Solidarity can amplify the voice of the movement of enough; and when your voice has a better chance of being heard, your hope is maintained.”

When one remembers that, just prior to the current war in Iraq, record numbers of people marched in the streets all over the world to oppose it but that they were nonetheless ignored by most of the politicians involved, it’s tempting to conclude that this kind of action is a waste of time. However, the historical record provides plenty of examples where popular pressure did produce political results.

Of course, popular pressure is a double-edged sword: sometimes it brings about results that are highly undesirable, as Brian Davey points out in the article he co-authored with Mark Rutledge. But in my view this should not be taken as a reason to refrain from political activism — rather the opposite. People will need to have accurate information and to know their options in order to avoid mass panic.

John Sharry writes in this regard that “while the general population is largely in denial about the nature and scale of the problems we face, this will change very quickly once a series of major crises hit. At this point people will become devastated, angry and very volatile. It is crucial at this point to have a worked-out and well-communicated understanding of what is happening that provides a pathway forward that brings people together. We need to prepare to provide leadership to a devastated population so as to avoid large scale social unrest and a dangerous social vacuum, and instead inspire people towards constructive action.” In this context, Davie Philip’s definition of leadership as “the ability to inspire initiative and new thinking with those around us” seems appropriate.

Although Sharry provides a strong practical argument for political involvement, we might well wonder whether we have enough time for this kind of strategy. Dmitry Orlov doesn’t think so. He writes that we should “stop wasting time and energy on conventional activism or political involvement. It is more efficient to simply wait for people to come round than to actively try to persuade them. Take “Believe me now, or believe me later!” as your motto. Time is on your side, not on the side of those who insist that they be persuaded.”

While it’s certainly clear that time and energy are scarce, we’ve already seen how the nature of some of our problems — climate change in particular — is such that the need for large-scale action appears to be inescapable. Specifically, there need to be enforceable global caps on greenhouse gas emissions, plus a global framework to encourage carbon sequestration and the preservation of existing carbon stocks.

That’s the stick that forces us to engage in political action, but there are carrots as well. Anne Ryan comments in her article that “politics is about public, collective choices and is closely connected to morality.” Seen in that light, the implications of some of the international programmes that are suggested in this book are quite stunning. What if we combined the curtailing of greenhouse gas emissions with ending the Third World debt crisis and providing billions of people around the world with a nest egg for investing in renewable energy, healthcare and education? The world would likely become a considerably more stable place in political terms, which is an obvious improvement, but it would also be a better one in that we would have taken a step towards redressing many historic injustices. Personally I think that that would be quite a worthwhile thing to try and do, well worth a stab anyway.

The question of political strategy remains, though. Haranguing politicians to try and get them to adopt certain policies might well backfire, particularly if the general public isn’t convinced of them either. As Brian Davey says in his second article, sometimes a more oblique approach works better.

It’s also worth remembering that there isn’t always a clear cutoff between active attempts at persuasion and the simple relating of facts: often both things happen in the same conversation. What if a curious but not-entirely-convinced person asks questions about the decisions one has made about one’s life? How much time, if any, should one devote to answering such questions?

So what should governments do?

Well, let’s assume that governments are willing to act as we wish. What should they actually do? John Sharry is most concerned with the short- and medium-term challenge of dealing with system collapse:

“Whereas many people within the environmental movement are envisioning what a sustainable society might look like, the most dangerous time will [be] the transition time which will be experienced as societal and economic collapse. Preparing for managing this transition time is crucial to survival. […] In small informed groups, prepare a series of national emergency or ‘disaster’ plans that will attempt to anticipate the exact nature of the many near future crises that will occur so that a range of adaptive responses can be strategised and prepared. This can include plans for dealing with energy and food scarcity, mass unemployment, population migration, currency and financial collapse etc. Both community, national and international responses need to be considered […] so that informed community and national leaders as well as plans and policies can be available once the major crises hit.”

In order to deal with future problems we’ll obviously need to have competent people around, and so Emer O’Siochru argues that we need to “campaign politically to hold our young and well educated in Ireland. We will need all our various engineers, scientists, mechanics, medical professionals and even generalists like architects, planners and system engineers. It is very important for the middle aged amongst readers to note that a youthful population is the only real insurance of a modicum of comfort for our old age.”

On a more general level, Laurence Matthews emphasises the responsibility governments have to be honest. He writes that we need to “induce governments to speak out plainly to their populations, to tell them the truth in plain language, as in wartime. Can they not pay their people the compliment of treating them as adults rather than fickle children who must be shielded from the truth? We need some leadership, in fact.”

Of course, it is possible that many politicians are simply unable to comprehend the depth of the predicament we are in. One certainly gets that impression when one looks at the investments that governments are currently making. David Korowicz points out that we need to avoid unwise investments at the national level as well as the individual one: “Don’t dig a deeper hole — buying a new car, or building more airports, motorways and incinerators is just.. stupid.”

Dan Sullivan draws also draws our attention to the ways that governments allocate taxpayer money: “Avoid supporting subsidies for greener technology, for greener technology merely pollutes less, and subsidies for technology increase dependence on technology. Paying someone to pollute less is still paying someone to pollute. Those who have arranged their lives so they can travel mostly by walking and bicycling should not have to support those who drive cars with their tax money, even if they are supporting those who drive electric cars.”

He thinks national governments need to delegate more responsibility: “Politically, ask national governments to do less, and to allow local governments greater flexibility. Consider that an ordinary citizen can easily talk to all of his municipal officials, but has an increasingly […] difficult time reaching county, state and national officials. In contrast, the lobbyists for Exxon, which has gasoline stations in tens of thousands of municipalities across the United States, have influenced every US Senator and Congressman. Yet they have never spoken to the people who run most of the municipalities where their gas stations are located.”

Money and business

Richard Douthwaite focuses on the role played by a nation’s currency. He thinks that there needs to be at least two types of currency, one for saving and the other for spending. Moreover, countries should keep their income and capital flows apart, as was done in the Sterling Area in the past: “International capital flows should not be mixed up with income flows. Each country or region should ensure that its import/export account for consumption purposes is always in balance. Imbalances may be permitted in capital flows but only for the purchase of capital goods.”

He believes that we need to move away from debt-based money, and that the area which a currency serves needs to be smaller, for the most part, than at present: “Apart from short-term personal loans, debt-based lending should be phased out in favour of income- or output-sharing participation. Debt-free money systems should be introduced at regional level.”

Patrick Andrews also discusses finance, in particular changes to banking: “My biggest dream at the national level is to turn a bank into a social enterprise, one that is owned by the community (not by the government — it is very different!) and where the voice of customers, staff, the community and the environment are heard in the board room. We should all push for that. This is not an easy thing to set up and implement, there will be lots of resistance at all levels. But to have a bank truly focused on serving the community as a whole would be worth pushing for.”

This fits in closely with Oscar Kjellberg’s idea, described above in the section on community and in more detail in his article, of developing community investment banks where savers and entrepreneurs would make decisions about the development of their community together. As mentioned above, Kjellberg thinks that local business alliances should be built around these types of community banks. On a national level, he suggests that the local business alliances should be joined into a national network.

Land, energy and climate change

As described in Emer O’Siochru’s article, a basic change in the taxation system could help to address climate change and future energy shortages. Here are her recommendations for national-level action:

“Campaign politically for a site value tax on all developed and potential development land that will create the economic incentives to develop local integrated energy, food and waste systems in our rural settlements.” Dan Sullivan’s article explains how such a tax would also shelter communities from economic storms by discouraging speculation on property.

O’Siochru continues: “Campaign politically for a land value tax on the remaining agricultural, forest, bog land and scrubland that will create the economic incentives for preserving healthy eco-system services i.e. carbon capture and storage and biodiversity while maximising food production for local and export consumption. If we do not use our large area of fertile land productively, others in dire need will see that it is used, but perhaps in a way that might suit us less.” Of course it’s also possible that such land would be commandeered by people who aren’t in particularly dire need — i.e. rich people — to meet their energy demands, which adds to the urgency of the situation.

Richard Douthwaite suggests that “a Community Energy Agency should be established to provide advisory and management services to communities wishing to develop their local renewable energy resources. The Agency would also guarantee the bonds issued by communities to raise the necessary finance for as long as it was providing management services.” In his article he describes in more detail how the relationship between energy and money could play out in such a scenario.

Douthwaite also thinks that “each country should strive to become renewable energy self-reliant as rapidly as possible because the cost in terms of the share of national output that will need to be given up to make the switch later on will be much higher.” In this regard it’s important to take energy returns on investments into account. Tom Konrad, in his article, points out that demand-side technologies such as smart electric meters and well-designed public transport have a very high energy return on investment, and their adoption could therefore help us to overcome the difficulties caused by moving away from fossil-fuel use.

Corinna Byrne makes a number of specific recommendations for addressing climate change. She believes we need to “refocus the value of peatlands from energy to carbon storage and sequestration and utilise alternative renewable technologies such as wind and bio-refining to provide for energy needs.”

She also describes a mechanism for dealing with livestock numbers in different countries: “Ireland, working through the EU, should seek to have global livestock numbers capped at their current level and to have the animal units allowed under the cap allocated to governments according to the number of animals kept in each country at present.”

These recommendations would obviously apply on an international level as well. Let’s move on to that now.

International action

Patrick Andrews writes: “Internationally, support “treeshaverightstoo” and push for the voice of the environment to be heard at the highest level of international decision-making”.

One of the reasons why the environment has so quiet a voice at present is that it is not recognised as a legal entity. To some readers, it may seem absurd to suggest that something that is not human, and not even a discrete object, could have legal rights. However, there is a precedent for this, albeit a rather notorious one: the corporation.

The treeshaverightstoo website was set up by Polly Higgins, an international environmental lawyer who addressed the UN in late 2008 on her proposal for a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights. As she points out on her website, there has been a gradual evolution in the recognition of legal rights. Initially, they applied only to educated males with property, but over the centuries they were gradually extended to include all humans. The most recent extension was to include children.

Children can be represented legally by an advocate if they are not old enough to represent themselves, and Higgins believes that the same approach could be taken to represent the rights of species other than humans, and the planet as a whole. In late 2008, Ecuador became the first country to adopt a constitution that includes enforceable Rights of Nature. Many of the ideas described in this book, such as Cap and Share, land value tax, the Carbon Maintenance Fee and changes in the nature of legal tender, will need legal enforcement, and their cases would probably be considerably strengthened by such a measure.

However, other changes are necessary too. Another reason that the environment has such a quiet voice is that it can’t afford a big loudspeaker, unlike the CEOs of large companies and the politicians whose campaigns they fund. So many economists argue that environmental resources need to be priced more accurately. With the correct price signals, they believe consumers would make spending decisions that are much more in line with reality. Laurence Matthews uses this reasoning in his suggestions for global action on climate change:

“- we must get a price put on carbon — most of the other policies and technologies needed will then take care of themselves;

– this price must rise quickly until it curtails emissions and promotes ‘sinks’, enough to start reducing [carbon dioxide] concentrations;

– such a price will only be politically sustainable if it is not seen as a ‘tax’ and if it is seen to be equitable;

– Cap and Share is one of the simplest schemes to do all this, bypassing much of the Kyoto-style deadlocks and rendering superfluous much of the time-consuming and distracting Clean Development Mechanism/carbon-trading complexities.”

While the price of the carbon dioxide emissions under Cap and Share would certainly give people pause about spending money on fossil fuels, Matthews makes it clear in his article that Cap and Share would also set an absolute limit on emissions — the cap — which would remain in place regardless of their price. The fossil-fuel producers would have to buy emissions permits in order to sell their product, and there would only be a certain number of these permits available.

Thus, even if there was a recession that caused a slump in demand for fossil fuels, and the price of fossil fuels then went down accordingly, we couldn’t have a repeat performance of what has tended to happen in the past with such recessions — namely, the low prices of fossil fuels triggering a resurgence in demand for them which then undermines renewable energy development. The cap would remain in place no matter what the economic circumstances were, and so there would always be a constraint on the absolute quantity of emissions that could be produced. As the cap was tightened year by year, fewer and fewer permits would be issued and the amount of overall emissions would decrease accordingly. This would enable policymakers and developers of renewable energy to make realistic long-term plans and investments.

So, while price would play an important role in Cap and Share, it wouldn’t have to handle the task of reducing emissions all by itself. This approach seems sound because it reflects the general role that price plays in the economy: pricing things accurately can be useful but it can’t solve all our environmental and social problems, and you have to be careful with it.

Another shortcoming of pricing is that in the absence of additional measures it can’t reduce the instability of an economy that is dependent on debt. Richard Douthwaite writes in this regard: “The scarcity rents which fossil energy and other commodity producers enjoy must be limited to the amount they can spend with their customers on consumption goods and services. A system needs to be put in place to prevent this level being exceeded. With fossil fuels, this could be by Cap and Share, which would capture the rents and spread them as income around the world. Alternatively, the consuming countries could set up an energy-buyers’ cartel which would serve the same purpose.”

As Douthwaite says, the introduction either of an energy-buyers’ cartel or of Cap and Share would help to stabilise the world’s financial system by preventing capital from surging around the world, and by relieving debt. Cap and Share has other advantages as well: it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as we’ve already seen, and it could significantly reduce global poverty and income inequality, at least in the short term while the price of emissions was high.

Dan Sullivan would probably disagree with this analysis, though. He writes: “The poor nations of the world do not merely happen to be poor. Rather, they are poor because they are plundered by international financiers and by absentee landlords. End the plunder, and you end the poverty. Even the people of resource-poor nations need to establish systems of freedom and justice before compensation [for resource use] will do them any good. Otherwise, compensation will follow the pattern that US foreign aid has always followed, taxing poor people in rich countries to subsidize rich people in poor countries”.

Indeed, at present much foreign aid also has the effect of subsidizing the companies in rich countries that provide the aid. However, the commons-based philosophy behind the per-capita distribution of emissions permits dovetails rather neatly with current development theory, which emphasises individual agency, and there does seem to be good evidence that cash transfer programmes are an effective way to reduce poverty. [4] Moreover, the equitable nature of Cap and Share is a point in its favour in ethical terms as well as practical ones.

A scheme such as Cap and Share isn’t without risks, though. Douthwaite goes on to describe one of them: the possibility that “the higher prices for fossil fuels [triggered by a cap on emissions] will lead to increased deforestation and the release of carbon from soils as land is converted to bioenergy production.” He suggests a solution: “The introduction of a Carbon Maintenance Fee [would] preserve and increase the stock of carbon held in soils and the biomass growing on them.”

Corinna Byrne, similarly, emphasises the need to preserve current carbon stocks: she writes that we should “push for tropical deforestation to be reduced and for the global forest cover loss to be halted”, and she, too, suggests that “governments could introduce the Carbon Maintenance Fee as a reward for holding and sequestering carbon in soils and biomass and to penalise for carbon releases.”

In order for such a scheme to be effective it would be necessary to measure carbon stocks accurately, so she thinks we need to “advocate the development of remote sensing techniques to map carbon stocks with the aim of improving estimates of the standing stock of carbon in biomass and changes in those stocks through time.”

Byrne also draws our attention to the fact that carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. There are other gases whose emissions need to be curtailed:

“Nitrous oxide [emissions reduction] needs to be prioritised because an increased nitrous oxide concentration is likely to lead to an increased methane concentration and thus a greater total warming effect than from the nitrous oxide alone (as nitrous oxide destroys ozone which destroys methane). Policy should be focused on reducing nitrous oxide releases, taking in reductions in methane emissions whenever these are compatible, such as in the use of anaerobic digesters.” Such digesters could be used to produced energy for communities.

Along with several of the other contributors, she also believes that biochar production has important potential: “The use of biochar is one of the few strategies that gives any basis for optimism that the excess CO2 in the atmosphere can actually be removed.” If the claims that have been made for the benefits of biochar have any foundation, it could prove to be an enormous help in addressing climate change, and also as a fuel source. As Emer O’Siochru mentions in her chapter, it could help to revive local economies as well.

Byrne has some specific suggestions about REDD, the international system for offsetting emissions by allowing countries which emit beyond their allowances to compensate for this by paying for other countries to emit less. This system has significant flaws, which Byrne describes in her article. She recommends that we “reject offsetting via REDD altogether or tighten the limits on how much can be done with a view to phasing it out completely by 2020. Funding for whole-country REDD schemes should come from the proceeds of auctioning EU emissions trading system permits (EUAs) after 2012 until a global system can be put in place.”

Dan Sullivan writes that “it is not necessary to support elaborate international schemes to make resource-consuming nations compensate nations from which the resources have been taken. It is only necessary for resource-exporting nations to levy substantial royalty charges on their own land and resources, to tax pollution, to untax labor, and to get control of their own money.” REDD would probably qualify as one of the “elaborate international schemes” that he criticises.

A new international currency

As mentioned above, Richard Douthwaite believes that the scarcity rents for commodities should not be allowed to expand infinitely, but rather should be curtailed and then recycled back to the people and countries who are buying the commodities, preferably by means of trade rather than as loans. A system such as Cap and Share would not only guarantee this recycling of rents, but it would also divide them among the whole population.

However, this measure would not be sufficient for achieving greater financial stability, as we would still be using debt-based money for all of our transactions, and, as we have seen in the many articles in this book that discuss the financial system, that type of money is highly volatile and dependent on unsustainable economic growth.

So Douthwaite also believes that “a new international trading currency should be established to replace currencies like the dollar, the euro and sterling. It would be given into circulation according to the amount of trading a country was doing and its first use should be to discharge foreign debt. In times of disaster such as the Pakistan floods, additional money could be created to finance the relief effort, thus spreading the cost fairly around the world.” A change of this kind is not as radical as you might think. The world already has a non-debt quasi-currency which is given into circulation by the IMF. It is called Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) or more popularly “paper gold”. The IMF insists that SDRs are not a currency but an “international reserve asset” which can be sold for currencies such as the dollar and the euro. They were first issued in 1969 to supplement IMF member countries’ official foreign exchange reserves. Only two issues have been made since, the most recent on August 28, 2009 in response to the global financial crisis. This was because, after the previous distribution in 1979-81, the United States vetoed futher issues so that its dollars were used as reserves instead. Unfortunately, SDRs are not shared out on the basis of population but according the maximum amount of financial resources that each member state is obliged to contribute to the IMF. This means that the bigger, richer countries get most.

A new life in old places? – a personal comment

There’s been much discussion in this book of the possibility of sudden collapses in civilisations, with whole ways of life being brought to an abrupt end. However, it’s also true that in certain circumstances, ways of life can fizzle away slowly rather than going out with a bang.

That’s been the case in the area where I live, in southern Burgundy in central France. The interesting thing about this area is that, like Pompeii, you can get an unusually clear idea of what life was like in the past. Hereabouts, the high point was the Middle Ages, specifically the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny was enormously wealthy and politically influential. At that time, the villages of the area almost all rebuilt their churches with the help of Italian masons who used hand tools and knotted ropes to measure the stones they worked with, and who left behind a rich legacy of intricate carvings. Such carvings appear not only on the churches but on people’s houses, and frequently depict scenes from everyday life.

The historian Edwin Mullins speculates that the reason for this sudden flowering of artistic expression was that everyone was relieved that the world hadn’t come to an end in 1000 AD, contrary to much dire prediction at the time.[5] But whatever the cause, the artistic frenzy wasn’t to be repeated. The power of Cluny began to wane from the thirteenth century on, and there were no more audacious building projects.

Village life continued, however, and the area remained modestly prosperous until well into the twentieth century. Recently I took a stroll around the village where my husband and I live with a neighbour who is in his seventies and who still lives in the house that he was born in. He pointed out various buildings in the centre of the village and told me “that was a café, that was a grocery, that was a smithy, that was another café, that was a carpenter’s workshop”.

Even though they’re eerily quiet now, the buildings left behind from the businesses are mostly in rather good shape. In fact, the villages as a whole have a bit of an unreal, fairytale look to them, almost too picture-perfect.

The cause of the businesses’ disappearance will probably be obvious to most readers. But just for the sake of thoroughness, I asked my neighbour why they had closed. He smiled wryly at me and said “the supermarkets” — which was of course a shorthand way of saying “the fossil-fuel-based economy”. Just as in many parts of rural Ireland, the arrival of private cars and the economies of scale used by supermarkets had undercut small local enterprises.

However, the dreamy quality of the villages remained unexplained. Eventually though it occurred to me that just as the volcanic ash which flooded Pompeii had a preservative effect on its buildings, these villages too had been flooded and preserved. But in their case it’s capital from elsewhere — money conjured up by the use of fossil pixie dust, to use Nate Hagens’ phrase — which has done the flooding. People from Paris and Lyon, and foreigners from Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Britain, the United States and even New Zealand, have bought second homes here, most of them medieval dwellings that they’ve lovingly restored. They generally fly into Paris or Lyon or drive down and spend a few weeks of the year here, usually during the summer as the winters are fairly intense.

I don’t mean to vilify those people who have second homes in the area — they’ve helped to support the local economy by hiring local masons and roofers to work on their restorations. Their interest in the local culture and history is genuine, and some of them are our friends.

But the uncomfortable fact remains that, as with all communities that don’t have much year-round occupancy, it’s not possible to keep services such as shops going. Additionally, locals have been priced out of many of the more comfortable homes. And of course, there’s also the niggling matter of the whole setup being wildly unsustainable.

I asked my neighbour how long ago all of those small businesses closed down and, much to my surprise, he told me that some of them — even the blacksmith — lasted into the 1980s. He also explained that the land around our house had been a farm which served some of the villagers. He himself had worked with draught horses on farms in the area until the mid-1960s. The communally owned woods on the hillside above were, and still are, a source of game for hunters. In the not-so-distant past, the hunters would hike over the hills to Tournus, a town on the easily navigable river Saone, to sell furs.

All of this conjures up an image of a kind of rural paradise, overflowing with abundance, which I’m sure wasn’t entirely the case. But then again, it’s important not to over-romanticise the modern industrial system either.

Aptly enough, the other day I was in a local supermarket with my toddler daughter. It was busy and there were long queues at the checkouts. We’d been waiting for a few minutes in a queue that had barely moved when my daughter told me that nature was calling.

The aisles were completely blocked with loaded shopping trolleys, so I pushed our trolley aside and went to ask a couple of the staff, who were stacking shelves, if she could use the toilet in the back of the supermarket. They told me that I’d have to get a key from the welcome desk, so we made our way over to it. But there was nobody there; everyone was helping at the checkouts. It occurred to me then that we could just go out the automatic entrance door, which was nearby, and my daughter could fertilize a tree outside, but when we went over to the door it wouldn’t open.

There was an electronics stand laden with gleaming gadgets right next to the door, and I asked the young woman who was behind it if she could open the door for us. She looked up distractedly from her mobile phone and told me that she was sorry, but it wasn’t possible. I assumed she meant that it was against some kind of shop rule to open the door, so I explained why we needed to go out. She apologized again and told me that if she had been able to, she would have opened the door, but it only opened from the outside and the staff had no control over it.

Thankfully my daughter and I did manage to get out eventually by running the gauntlet of the shopping trollies in a checkout aisle. But the whole little episode got me thinking about escape routes, and unnecessarily complex labyrinths designed to suck people so that they consume more resources, and the relative powerlessness of the people working in the labyrinth.

This was just a minor incident, of course, but the contrast between our experience at the supermarket and at our local farmer’s market, which takes place once a week, could hardly be greater. There, many of the vendors know my daughter by name, and if you end up waiting a long time in a queue it’s likely to be because the vendor is having a chat with someone, rather than because some unfortunate customer didn’t have quite enough cash on them to pay for everything in their trolley and the cashier is having to call up the supermarket manager in order to get permission to cancel part of the sale transaction.

The emptiness of material abundance without enough human connection is made very clear when we consider the things that small children really need, as opposed to the things that advertisers say they need. And there’s another group besides children that is particularly badly served at present. Those houses in the villages around here that aren’t second homes are generally occupied by people like my neighbour — people in their seventies and eighties who have witnessed the slow death of their communities. It would be wonderful if they could see life in the villages again; children playing, adults working and socialising.

Of course I don’t mean to imply that I think everything should revert to the way it was before the era of fossil fuels. There’s plenty of room for anaerobic digestors and solar water heaters here and elsewhere, and even if there wasn’t, we’ve seen in this book that going back to the past is not an option. But there are a great many rural places in the world waiting to be occupied again, in a somewhat different manner from before, and there’s still time — just about — to learn valuable skills from the older generation.

It’s interesting to note that most of the inhabitants of Pompeii did realise in time that they were experiencing a true emergency. They managed to flee to safety, escaping the volcano’s ashes. So let’s hope that this parallel with our present situation also holds.


  1. In the course of preparing this conclusion I asked the person who administers the transactions in our local currency, Mathilde Béguier, if it’s overly time-consuming, and she said that she doesn’t find it a problem. I asked what she would do if there was a big increase in transactions. She said that she would divide the work up with others, but that if membership increased as well, the best solution would be to start up more local currencies in order to deal with the overflow.
  2. A History of Money from Ancient Times to the Present Day, Glyn Davies, University of Wales Press, 2002, p 642.
  3. The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, Penguin, 2008, p 358.
  4. See for example “The Social Protection Floor :A joint Crisis Initiative of the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination on the Social Protection Floor”, UNDP/ILO, 2009 and Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the South, Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme, Kumerian Press, 2010.
  5. In Search of Cluny: God’s Lost Empire, Edwin Mullins, Signal, 2006

Featured image: Cluny Rue Desbois fenetre. Author: Jan Sokol. Source:

Busy doing nothing – seven reasons for humanity’s inertia in the face of critical threats and how we might remove them

Mark Rutledge and Brian Davey

The addiction to dopamine highs described by Nate Hagens in the previous article is just one reason why humans have failed to curb their excessive resource consumption. Six others are outlined here, some of which are systemic; others the result of the way humanity evolved. Our best chance of counteracting them will come when the crisis pushes us out of our comfortable ruts.

Mark Rutledge writes: Throughout my 25 years as an environmental activist,
I have been struck by the lack of importance other people give to my concerns. For example, the most common response amongst family, friends and classes when I enter into another passionate discourse on the latest climate change science is what I term the ‘MEGO effect’ (My Eyes Glaze Over). It’s no better now than it was when I started out, even though the environmental threat has increased and its causes are understood and are rapidly becoming quantified. As Professor David Suzuki put it, the world is on a “blind date with disaster”. Yet, rather than this enabling me to move in from the margins and play some useful role in putting matters right, I am beginning to resemble William Blake’s “dog starv’d at his Master’s gate” which “predicts the ruin of the state.”

Well, I’m not happy about this since, without indulging in what Camilla Cavendish of the London Times calls “climate porn”, we are, as the New Economics Foundation put it in their 2008 publication The new green deal – 100 months to save the planet, in the final countdown to irreversible climate change. Rather than invite the same glazed looks by writing about the science of climate change and policies to prevent it, however, I’m going to explore some of the reasons for the individual and collective inertia that seems to be the response to the approaching catastrophe.

Reason for Inertia 1: Following the Herd

There is a deeply ingrained human tendency to convince oneself that everything is okay because no-one else is worried. Two psychologists, John Darley and Bibby Latané, have demonstrated that the more people who witness an event, the less responsible any one of them feels for doing anything about what they see. They invited students to undertake an exam in an assembly hall. Only one student was in the hall at a time and the rest of the “examinees” were actors. The student and actors were then presented with an exam paper. In the middle of the exam, Darley and Latané started filling the hall with smoke through the ducts and observed the responses. The actors were instructed to continue with their exam but, in each case, the unsuspecting student observed the smoke, looked at the inaction of his or her fellow examinees and continued to write. When the control experiment involved a single student, once the smoke was observed, the individual rapidly made a decision to evacuate the hall. This exercise and others along similar lines demonstrate how, as Camilla Cavendish puts it, “the inaction of other people can make us underestimate threats to our own safety.”

Reason for Inertia 2: The Post-Trust Society

We live in what Prof. Ragnar Lofstedt calls a “post-trust society“. The public and thus the electorate no longer trust politicians, regulators or big business. In Ireland, some of the reasons are obvious — infected blood scandals, judicial cover-ups, clerical child abuse and corrupt politicians. The result was demonstrated in the first Lisbon Treaty referendum vote when the mainstream political parties representing 90% of the electorate failed to convince the voters that the treaty should be passed. A motley collection of extremist, single-issue campaigners gained a comprehensive victory over the pro-treaty forces. One of the central planks of their victory was that the voters didn’t trust the pro-Europe parties’ assurances over corporation tax, abortion and the possibility of conscription to a European army. While these and other issues were cogently disputed and argued, a Millward-Brown survey afterwards showed that a lack of trust was an important factor in the No vote.

Trust levels are falling throughout the OECD as well. For example, in Finland the proportion of people expressing trust in their leaders fell from 65% in the 1980s to 33% in the mid-nineties, and in Germany it dropped from 51% to 29%.

Convincing people to trust, say, Al Gore, John Gormley or Duncan Stewart on climate change is just as hard as the proponents of the Lisbon Treaty (and indeed the Nice Treaty prior to that) experienced. In Autumn 2009, ‘Climategate’ and doubts over the melt-rate of Himalayan glaciers showed the difficulty of communicating ‘conventional’ views in the ‘post-trust’ society. In the public’s view, the whole notion of anthropogenic climate change was thrown into doubt and the work of thousands of scientists over the past 20 years was immediately devalued. Bespectacled, bearded scientists have been added to the ‘post-trust’ lists, making it very hard to have science at the forefront of the climate debate. In effect, we are getting a replay of the smoking debate in the late 1970s and early 1980s when respected scientists like Frederick Seitz were paid by tobacco companies to use the tactic of “uncertainty” to dispute the effects of tobacco on human health.

The emergence of the web has exacerbated the problem. The surfeit of contra-arguments and contra-opinions available on the web makes it hard to trust anything.

Reason for Inertia 3: Distorted perceptions of risk

Over the past 20 years, an increasingly aggressive media has used sensationalised headlines to sell papers. In the process, risks have been amplified and benefits played down. Health in the News, Risk Reporting and Media Influence, a major report by Roger Harrabin, Anna Coote and Jessica Allen, demonstrated the effects of the sensational face of news reporting in 2003. The report analysed the news stories on the BBC and in three newspapers and compared the level of coverage of stories on risk with the real likelihood of someone being harmed by the risk in question. It found that scares were usually overplayed in the media. Smoking was killing 120,000 people a year in Britain at the time but it rarely featured in the news. Anyone dying of measles was 34,000 times more likely to have their cause of death mentioned on the news than if they died of smoking.

The BBC News programmes surveyed for the research ran one story on smoking for every 8,500 people that died from a smoking-related disease. At the other end of the scale the BBC ran one story per 0.33 people who died of vCJD and one story per 0.25 people who died of measles. The newspapers showed a similar pattern, but their coverage was more proportionate because the news output was balanced by features where public health issues were more likely to figure.

Deaths per BBC news story

Cause of Death













The sensationalisation and amplification of threats like vCJD, SARS and measles versus bigger health risks is shown in the table. Climate change has already entered the risk-attenuated category, helping dampen down our responses individually, collectively and politically. News research organisations have reported that February 2007 was the peak of public interest in climate change; polls since then have shown a decline in public concern on the subject and, by association, in the willingness to act. In Ireland, we have seen simple policy changes around CFL bulbs and a motor-tax regime built around emissions become enmeshed in posturing around extreme scenarios and cheap political point-scoring.

Reason for Inertia 4: The lack of a notion of the future

The collective inertia cannot be attributed exclusively to the ‘post-trust society’ and the way the media portrays risk. There are a number of other factors at play, and these are deeply rooted in the human phenotype. In his Commonwealth Lecture in March 2008, David Suzuki explored the role of evolution in our response to climate change. He starkly outlined some of the worst environmental problems facing us:

  • By 2048 marine fish will be commercially extinct
  • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is now 20 years old but has little to show for its efforts
  • 50,000 species are becoming extinct annually
  • 50% of the world’s forests are now gone
  • Global human populations, now at 6.6 billion, is expected to rise by 50% by 2050

Little or no collective responsibility is being taken for these and other worrying projections. Suzuki looked at evolution in an effort to understand why. He pointed out that modern man, homo sapiens, first emerged as a species 150,000 years ago — upright, hairless in what was, in effect, an open-air zoo. The natural attributes that one would expect to have to have to survive in such a situation — strength, speed and sensory development — were not sufficiently well developed to give man a competitive advantage.

That advantage came from intelligence, an intelligence manifest in man’s memory, curiosity, inventiveness and ability to think in abstract terms. Even though the reality is the present and our memories are of the past, these attributes combined to “create a notion of the future“. And, because the brain invented a future, humans recognised that they could affect that future by what they did in the present. Foresight became an important ability that enabled humans survive and flourish.

The ability to look ahead and manoeuvre to exploit opportunities and avoid threats is just as critical for survival in modern times. For at least the 40 years since the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, our foresight has warned us that are on an unsustainable path. It is now almost two decades since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when scientists warned humanity that “no more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.” The worldwide response to these messages from those with the resources to bring about change has been almost nil.

The failure of those with the power to allocate resources was graphically portrayed in 2005 by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Despite warnings about New Orlean’s inadequate drainage system and levee height, tax money had not been provided to rectify them. The result was that almost the whole city was flooded and $90 billion in property damage was done over a wide area. More than 1,500 people died in Louisiana alone.

I believe this type of thing happens because while our foresight tells us what needs to be done, we fail to do it because we have evolved into a highly polarised global society where some of the very poor are forced to engage in unsustainable practices such as forest clearance in order to survive while the very rich, those with the resources to make the change, are engaged in a bacchanalian race to excess in which, up to now, no competitor has been seriously penalised for their overconsumption. Indeed, the penalty for underconsuming has been to be left behind. Trapped in this competitive system, our individual and collective ability to guard against threats such as climate change is negligible. We operate in the narrow bandwidth of daily life at the expense of developing a notion of a sustainable future and then actually bringing that future about because that would involve the overconsumers curbing their current consumption.

Reason for Inertia 5: Discount Rates

To understand our attitude to the future, we must look at ‘human discount rates’, their evolutionary origins, and their relevance to the mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The discount rate favours the present over the future: the higher it is, the greater the bias. The term discount rate is commonly associated with the talk of equity analysts and can be defined as “the interest rate used in determining the present value of future cash flows.” A discount rate approaching 100% means things in the future have no value at all in the present moment. A discount rate of zero means that 1 in 2050 is worth 1 today.

It was always considered that a human discount rate curve (rate/time) was exponential; this meant that we discounted the same period to period. Actual economic experiments have shown that the shape of the discount curve to be hyperbolic; in other words, the early periods have much steeper discount rates than later periods. David Laibson, in his paper ‘Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting’, indicates that peoples discount rates are 12% during days 0-5 but drop to 4% in days 20-25. We really prefer the present.

Comparisons between the discount rates of animals and humans show differences. Many animals have short lifespans and they have been shaped by evolution to devour food and reproduce quickly before they die. They therefore have a high discount rate. This is not a conscious choice, of course; they are simply behaving in a way that was historically successful since animals that postponed opportunities to eat might come back to find their food had been stolen. As Nate Hagens has put it, “the long arm of selection would have favoured organisms that valued immediacy over those who preferred to wait.”

A recent study used food rewards to study two monkey species of similar genetic make-up and living in a similar habitat but with different diets. One species was a gummivore; it scratched on trees and waited for the sap to ooze out. The other species was an opportunistic insectivore, grabbing whatever insect it could catch. Not unexpectedly, the monkeys whose feeding behaviour required patience had lower discount rates than the other species.

Generally, human discount rates are not as steep as animals. David Laibson reports that in economic games, subjects who choose larger, long-term rewards have their prefrontal cortex activated. This is the part of the brain involved in conscious decision making. Those who chose the smaller, short-term rewards showed neural activity in the limbic system, the emotional mammalian brain. Humans, in effect, have two discount rates: the ‘thinking’ discount rate with a low decline over time and the ’emotional’ discount rate with a steep decline over a short time. This reinforces the notion that emotions trump reason!

Reason for Inertia 6: Our brains are maladapted to
modern life

In the 1997 book Evolutionary Psychology – A primer, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby set out five core principles. They can be paraphrased as follows :

Principle 1. The brain’s circuits are designed to generate behaviour that is appropriate to our environmental circumstances.

Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.

Principle 3. Most of what goes on in our minds is hidden from us. As a result, our conscious experience can mislead us into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that we think are easy to solve require very complicated neural circuitry.

Principle 4. Different neural circuits developed specifically to solve different adaptive problems.

Principle 5. Our modern skulls therefore house a Stone Age mind.

In other words, the key to understanding the modern mind is to realise that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern European; they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of hunter-gatherers. These Stone Age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most modern communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in modern life.

Reason for Inertia 7: Our addiction to a dopamine buzz

The neuroscientist and psychiatrist Paul D. MacLean developed his Triune (three brains in one) hypothesis in 1959. He suggests the human brain consists of a ‘primitive’ reptilian brain around the brain stem for controlling basic instinctual survival behaviour and thinking. Then there is the mammalian ‘Limbic’ system that handles emotion, memory and feelings associated with unconscious behavioural response patterns. Finally, there is the ‘neocortex’ which developed to enable rational thought and other higher order functions and is unique to humans. But, interestingly, human emotional response patterns depend on the neural pathways that link the right hemisphere of the neo-cortex to the mammalian brain which in turn links to the reptilian brain.
It is these connections, where impulse can override rationality, where humans engage in activity at a societal and personal level that they know to be adverse to our health and well-being but still satiates the repitilian brain in the short-term, which continue to dominate our reponse. This scenario can be seen in our relationship with tobacco, alcohol and increasingly food — the rise of obesity, diabetes and heart disease where the short-term primitive needs are met at the expense of our future condition.

Central to this behaviour is dopamine. Dopamine, a core neurotransmitter, plays an integral role in our short-term desires. It is the dopamine rush that consumers feel when securing a particular handbag or winning at the bookies. Many of the modern options that engage our neurotransmitters are maladaptive. Pornography and lottery tickets give us feelings identical to those our ancestors were good at pursuing. But now, in the 21st century, they often trick our brains into responding in the way they did which led to evolutionary success.

In his 2008 book Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More, John Naish argues that “We are lumbered with ‘wanting’ brains.” We want, want, want, and are also intrigued by novelty. Our dopamine pleasure centres in our brains are flooded when we acquire and buy. A salesperson talks of ‘shoe-limics’ . The dopaminergic systems is clearly one of the drivers of our short-term behaviour. In essence, more dopamine craving means less concern about climate change.

So Brian, tell me, in view of all these constraints on human behaviour, why do you remain optimistic that humanity will be able to change sufficiently to save itself from disaster?

Brian Davey replies:

I wouldn’t describe myself as overly optimistic but I do feel that a lot of people are capable of changing. After all, we all go through major life changes from time to time, and that gives us a collective chance to steer these personal transitions in a more ecological direction. So I think we need to explore what happens when, either intentionally or involuntarily, people move outside of their previous routines and restructure their lives.

It is not really surprising that most people’s behaviour is difficult to change most of the time. If you want to predict what most people will be doing tomorrow, then the best thing to do is to look at what they were doing yesterday and are doing today. Of course if it is a weekend then what they were doing last weekend would be a better predictor.

Routines make the management of everyday life a lot easier. As the English playwright and author Arnold Bennett put it: “The great advantage of being in a rut is that when one is in a rut, one knows exactly where one is” and “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts. “

That means that people are usually open to major changes only when they are outside their routines and in transition. More normally they are blinkered and prefer to stay with the familiar. So they may hear the environmental messages of the sort Mark used to deliver but only superficially. Then they ignore them or file them in their minds as “for later action…maybe” and forget them. And if they hear the messages too often, their eyes do glaze over.

Meanwhile their routines, based on an unsustainable use of social and natural commons resources, have a “locked-in” character and are often heavily “context determined”. The context includes the interrelated arrangements that arise in the relationships people have, in the places that they live and the equipment and machines that they use, sustained by their incomes and the nature of their jobs — and also by their age, health, experience, education and aspirations (or lack of aspirations).

These different elements fit together in what can be described as a “lifestyle package”. You cannot change most elements of the package very far without having to change the other elements. For example when people become parents they need to find space for their child in their habitat and that, in turn, will affect their day-to-day financial needs. Of course it will affect their time commitments too and their relationships with their partner. A child brings with it the need for a new “package” arrangement.

If you want to change you must take your relationships with you

If you want to start living differently, in a more environmentally sustainable fashion, you will usually have to take other people along with you; they too will have to change their routines and familiar patterns. Say that you decide to eat less meat for environmental reasons; if you live and eat together with others it isn’t easy to do that without them having to change too. Say you want to get involved with an environmental project in your leisure time; again, you can’t change how you spend your leisure time without it usually affecting the people with whom you currently spend your leisure.

That is really important because if you cannot bring along the others in your life when you decide to have a more sustainable lifestyle, then your lives with others may start to become desynchronised; partners and children start doing different things. And when people’s emotional lives start to become desynchronised it does not augur well for the future of their relationships. [1]

A decision to live a more sustainable life also has knock-on consequences for where you live, your income and/or your savings and your debts. It will probably affect your work — and perhaps how you get to and from work. It may affect joint budgets with your loved ones, which includes time budgets as well as money ones.

A decision to live a more sustainable lifestyle has lots of “knock-on consequences”. It takes you into unknown territory and destabilises your usual relationships with your loved ones. It may require new situations and skills. It may take you out of your comfort zone — or you may fear that it will and decide not to look more closely at it as a result.


Despite everything, there are also situations where, in the ordinary course of life, routines change or where people seek out a change in the routine because they are frustrated, bored and hemmed in by the life they are living. Every so often people go through lifestyle changes despite the risks. They seek out different things to do, in different places, with different people. As the routine is changed they have a need to review aspects of their lives, to look at options and consider different ways of acting — these are situations that may require new ideas and new skills. They may require help to make the transition too, for there is no guarantee that things will go as they hope or as well. This suggests a different way of looking at mental health crises — as botched transitions when people flounder and are disorientated and distressed by their new lives. This was anticipated by Anthony Storr [2] when he wrote

Suppose that I become dissatisfied with my habitual self, or feel that there are areas of experience or self understanding which I cannot reach. One way of exploring these is to remove myself from present surroundings and see what emerges. This is not without its dangers. Any form of new organisation or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganisation. No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former pattern will be succeeded by something better.

There are socially typical transitions and not so typical lifestyle changes. There are voluntary changes that people launch into themselves and changes that they are forced to make, whether they like it or not.

Examples of socially typical transitions are when young adults leave the parental home, get a job and set up relationships of their own. At the other end of life they retire. Pretty much everyone goes through transitions of these kinds; these transitions are socially normal. That is not to say however that everyone makes these transitions easily or successfully. Their previous lives may not have provided the experience, skills, financial and social resources to make the transition successfully. New relationships, activities and places might require resources and skills that people do not have. Stress and distress, disorientation, and breakdown are the hallmarks of a botched transition.

Midlife crises

A slightly less normal, if not unusual, life transition is the midlife crisis where somebody reviews their value system, considers what really matters to them, and decides that the pattern of their life needs fundamental change. They may decide to downshift, accepting a lower income for less paid work and using the extra time for things that matter more to them. Downshifting is not that uncommon and usually means adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. It doesn’t fit the argument that people are reluctant to embrace environmental sustainability. In his 2004 book Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton [3] quotes figures from a US survey in which 19% of the adult population declared that they had voluntarily decided to make a change in their lives that resulted in making less money in the previous 5 years. That excluded people taking scheduled retirement. A similar survey in Australia found 23% of 30 to 60 year olds downshifting.

Life games

The discussion about midlife crises and the phenomenon of “downshifting” is a useful point from which to explore the important issue of life purposes. The critic of psychiatry Thomas Tsasz developed this idea when he wrote that to be mentally healthy one must have “a game” to play in life. A life game is what one might call a vocational choice, using vocational choice in its widest sense and not just in a narrow career sense. To join an extremist cause or a religious sect, or to become a committed environmentalist are examples of adopted life games. Most people, most of the time, adopt more prosaic life games and the advertising industry tries to structure our life games around shopping, status consumption and holidays — funded out of our work.

It should be noted that there is a distinction between a life game and a lifestyle package. They are not quite the same but there is a subtle interplay between the two of them. Thus, for example, efforts to organise your house and garden in an energy-efficient and self-sufficient manner are not a significant thing in the life game of someone involved in extremist left-wing politics or who lives to promote the truths, as they see it, of a religious sect, although people like this will need to arrange somewhere to live, the same as anyone else. On the other hand, to an environmentalist who is trying to save energy, the organisation of their house, with insulation to save energy and a productive vegetable garden, will be very much a part of their lifestyle package on which they concentrate to be consistent with their chosen life game.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations

In the next few years it is likely that consumption- and status-based life games will become increasingly unviable in manageable lifestyle packages. This is important in the light of the important distinction between people motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic purposes. Psychologists have discovered a great deal of evidence that people motivated by extrinsic goals — like making more money so that they can acquire more of the consumer goods and activities that they want — have more problems maintaining their self-esteem and life satisfaction than those motivated by intrinsic goals. This tells us that there is something very wrong with the assumptions of mainstream economics. In most mainstream economics we get a sense that making money has become the end and chief purpose in and of itself: it is the goal and purpose of life. The life game is to become rich. Full stop. People with this life game will likely be in trouble in a future of expensive energy and wobbly banks.[4]

This is even more important in those circumstances where life transitions are forced on people involuntarily — for example, through redundancy, which at its worst may bring with it the loss of home and the loss of relationships too. Involuntary life transitions may also affect whole communities, as in when a major local employer goes bust. There are serious dangers here, if people cling to unrealistic expectations of returning to a “normality” that is gone forever, and then become bitter and recidivist. In situations where a community in crisis is pervaded by cultural assumptions that favour extrinsic motivations — a high-status, high-consuming lifestyle — there are going to be lots of problems. After the shock of closures, individual community members can only hope to retain aspects of this kind of life if they resort to deviant activity like selling drugs, or acting for loan sharks or resorting to prostitution or pimping, while others dull their disappointment and frustration in other forms of self-destruction.

Seen in this way, help for individuals and communities to adopt more sustainable lifestyles that are socially valued can be seen as crucial to good individual and community mental health. This has been recognised for some time among health promotion and community mental-health professionals. Projects like community gardens, projects that promote cycling and energy efficiency in neighbourhoods, are of more than ecological relevance. They suggest that it is possible to organise holistically and try to achieve a number of goals at one time; indeed, that this needs to happen if people are to be able to cope at all. [5]

There have, of course, been many times in history when millions of people come together to adopt common life games in that unite against a common enemy in a war, or adopt a common religion or political ideology. What postmodernist theorists called a “Grand Narrative” may provide the inspiration for a common life game and the social cohesion that makes possible the achievement of far more than can be achieved by individuals or small groups alone. The inspirational power of “Grand Narratives” can be intoxicating but they may be dangerous too, inspiring a loyalty that leads to conformity, to an inability to see the world any differently from the one portrayed within the conceptual framework of the new ideology and, ultimately, to new forms of tyranny as conformity to the cause is enforced by new leaders.

In current conditions we need something of the intoxicating power of a new grand narrative with ideas like the defence of natural and social commons resources as unifying themes, but without the conformity and centralisation of a top-down bureaucracy and leadership. There is good reason to hope that we can indeed, this time, have a movement that recognises the value that comes with preserving diversity. This is because the ecological revolution, if we can call it that, proceeds from the need to resist the homogenising tendency of the world market — to recognise instead that every field, stream, forest, biotope settlement and building needs a unique management regime to restore ecological health. Nevertheless, the inspirational power and motivational potential of a new movement are already evident, as is clear from the writings and presentations of Paul Hawkens; in his book Blessed Unrest, he refers to the civil society movement as “the largest social movement in history” with perhaps as many as one or two million organisations active on the destruction of the environment, against free-market fundamentalism, for social justice and against the loss of indigenous cultures.

Using the window of opportunity to promote more sustainable lifestyles

In recent years a number of researchers have investigated whether periods of life transition can be used be seen as windows of opportunity for promoting more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns — albeit in situations less dramatic than those just discussed. The evidence suggests that it is possible alright, but the policy design is not straightforward.

From the point of environmental sustainability, lifestyle and consumption patterns after a significant lifestyle shift may be better, but frequently they are worse. Car use when people move home is an example. Several studies show that ” the probability for changes in mobility habits seems to rise with the degree of context variation. Persons who move from a rural area to a city tend to reduce their car use significantly more often than do persons who move from one city to another. These studies also stress, however, that variations in context do not automatically lead to the reduction of car use. While some life events like the transition to retirement, a reduction of income or a relocation to a district with good public transport (PT) may have these effects, there are others which tend to result in higher car use (e.g. birth of a child, relocation to rural areas, increase of income)”. [6]

The importance of peer support and advice

There is never just one thing going on when a lifestyle changes — it is the whole package that is changing. Moreover the person in transition will be taking advice, ideas and information from a variety of sources — from friends, family and peers, and from commercial and other sources. Nevertheless, lifestyle shifts do often provide windows of opportunity for changes in a more sustainable direction. If and when green influences can be brought to bear in these situations, they are then more effective the more they tune into the unique circumstances of the individual — rather than being generic in character. As Schäfer and Bamberg explain:

The strongest effects seem to result from personal communication that takes the personal circumstances of the addressed person into account. There is also evidence that the behavioural impact is higher if the sender has a similar social background as the addressee.

This points to the need for a movement based in communities — where people giving advice know each other personally — and not on some official programme delivered by anonymous bureaucrats. It points to the development of skills by advisers who can really tune in to unique circumstances. It is for reasons like this that we can understand the success of projects like Eco-Teams and the community activities of projects like Transition Towns. In these activities the learning is in the presence of, and between, peers — people who are considering how to organise a household rather like one’s own. Indeed, like going to a community garden regularly, this is a way of making new friends — something that one is unlikely to be able to do by accessing all one’s needs from the supermarket.

Generic programmes

While this points to the value of peer relationships and support that are more tuned into individual needs there are still occasions when generic policies can be delivered effectively. Thus Schäfer and Bamberg found that the Munich public transport administrations enjoyed considerable success when they specially targeted people newly relocating into Munich.

Typical elements of these mover-marketing campaigns are the provision of a temporally valid free PT test ticket and PT services-related information as soon as possible after the move. Evaluations of these campaigns indicate a significant impact from these simple measures on new citizens’ travel behaviour: New citizens receiving the intervention report a substantive increase of PT use and respective decrease of car use…….Car possession per household is, for example, reduced from 1.5 to 0.9 after relocation and PT is used more often. These effects were significantly higher among the group that was addressed by the campaign in comparison to the control group (increase of 7.6% of the modal split). The results show that the effects were mainly achieved by increasing knowledge about the use of PT. From these results Bamberg (2006) drew the conclusion that linking such campaigns to life events is an effective strategy for increasing behavioural mobility changes.


In a recent book the Financial Times columnist and economist John Kay argues that policy, business and life goals are often best achieved not by pursuing them head on, directly, but by an indirect approach. His book is aptly titled Obliquity. The complaint of environmentalists, that people are reluctant to change, is often because they are approaching the change process too directly and too generically. Indeed there is always a danger that when one tries to get people to change, and at the wrong times, one is perceived as interfering and moralistic. The implied message that people “should change their ways” is experienced as subtle criticism that can often be rejected — “who are you to tell me how I should live my life?”

An oblique approach is required to deal with the problems that Mark highlights. People change the way they arrange their lives from time to time anyway and/or are forced to do so whether they like it or not. The trick of moving towards more environmentally sustainable lives may be to find ways to intervene in these periods of transition in a way that is experienced as helpful by people who lead by personal example. As far as possible this needs to be tuned into the unique circumstances facing individuals and as far as possible it needs to be in the form of advice and support coming from peer groups. In the difficult times ahead there will certainly be enough people who need this kind of support.


See also my paper “The De-Growth Economy and Lifestyles”, produced for the Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity conference, Paris, 18/19th April 2008

  1. Luigi Boscolo and Paulo Bertrando. The Times of the Times. A New Perspective in Systemic Therapy and Consultation. WW Norton 1993.)
  2. Anthony Storr, Solitude, HarperCollins 1994 page 35
  3. Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish, Pluto Press, 2004, p 206).
  5. Davey B., “Solving Economic, Social and Environmental Problems Together: An Empowerment Strategy for Losers” in Barnes, M and Warren L (eds) Alliances and Partnerships in Empowerment. Bristol, Policy Press 1999).
  6. Schäfer, M./Bamberg, S. (2008): “Breaking Habits: Linking Sustainable Consumption Campaigns to Sensitive Life Events”. Proceedings: Sustainable Consumption and Production: Framework for Action, 10-11 March 2008,äfer_Bamberg_SCORE.pdf