Sailing craft for a post-collapse world

Dmitry Orlov

Land transport will be costly, difficult and dangerous after the industrial system has broken down. Moving goods and people by water will be a better option even for quite short distances but what sort of boats will be needed and what materials will be available to build them?

At present, whether you need to move around yourself, or whether everything you need is delivered straight to your door, you depend for transport on industrial products whether they be cars and lorries, planes, trains, ships, bicycles, or even just a good pair of shoes. Is any means of transport available that you could provide, build or even service yourself that does not require access to industrial materials, products or services?

Even human bipedal locomotion has been industrialised: just to get from the bedroom to the bathroom you might want to put on slippers, and they probably say “Made in China” on them. They were made in a large factory, and were brought to you on an even larger container ship. Few of us know any cobblers who live within walking distance, whereas, were the global industrial economy to unravel, bipedal locomotion would become, pardon the pun, our sole recourse. It is an old experimentalist tradition to try experiments on oneself, and so, as an experiment, I spent a few months going about barefoot. I found it quite possible, reasonably safe, and even perfectly pleasant, in the warmer seasons and climates, following a few weeks of somewhat uncomfortable adaptation. But that’s a minor matter; my other, more ambitious experiments have made me quite optimistic regarding one’s ability to cover huge distances and generally move about the planet, even after jet aircraft, container ships and other leviathans of industrial civilisation go off to join the dinosaurs. Provided, that is, that one makes some timely preparations.

A Thames barge, a traditional 80ft shoal-draft craft designed for estuaries and coastal waters, could carry large amounts of cargo and be sailed by a man and a boy. Photo: Steve Birch.

Although a complete and instantaneous collapse of global industry doesn’t seem particularly likely just at this very moment, its likelihood begins to approach 100 per cent as we move through the 21st Century. The opposing view – that industrial civilisation can survive this century – comes up rather short of facts to support it and rests on an unshakable faith in technological miracles. In an echo of medieval alchemy, the hopes for technological salvation are pinned on some element or other: yesterday it was hydrogen; today it’s thorium. Fusion reactors are currently out of fashion, cold fusion doubly so, but who knows what new grand proposal tomorrow will bring?

In the meantime, we have far more mundane problems to consider. We’ve had ample chance to observe that when key supplies run short, industrial economies crumble. Throughout their relatively short history, industrial economies have tended to do well as they were given more and more of everything they needed (energy, raw materials, fresh water, land, cheap/free labour and so forth). There are no examples of industrial economies surviving chronic shortfalls of key commodities — especially ones that have no readily available substitutes. Quite the opposite: we have the stunning example of the USSR, where the peak in domestic crude oil production precipitated a financial collapse and a political dissolution just a few years later, events which were followed by a severe and prolonged economic decline. It was only by integrating with the global economy, which had plentiful resources at the time, that the Russian economy was able to recover. No such rescues will be available when the shortfalls become global.

We also have the example of the current Great Recession, which occurred as soon as the global economy encountered a physical limit to oil production. These events are like canaries in a coal mine, because over the course of the century the global industrial economy is destined to encounter not just global peak oil, but peak just about everything else it runs on: coal, natural gas, iron ore, strategic metals and minerals – in short, just about everything that industry requires to maintain itself and to grow. Since most footwear is now made of polymers, which are synthesised from oil and natural gas, we are also likely to pass peak shoes. Such facts can now be gleaned from a number of authoritative reports published by international and governmental agencies.

Why, then, don’t these facts inform the discussion on the future of transport? If one were to assemble a panel of professionals and experts on transport technology and ask them to propose transport solutions that could continue to operate for the remainder of this century, one would no doubt hear of various high-tech products – electric cars, light rail, high-speed trains, hydrogen fuel cells, plug-in hybrids and so on. These would enable our contemporary, industrialized society to perpetuate its current lifestyle, and everyone to keep their jobs. That’s all well and good, but as a follow-up question one might wish to inquire as to how their plans will be impacted by a variety of factors, some of which are already present, some certain to happen at some point during this century, with only the exact timing in dispute. The list of such factors might reasonably include:

  1. The inability to supply/afford transport fuels in the amounts needed to run existing transportation networks, construction and industrial equipment. Transport fuels are made almost entirely from oil, and global oil production has probably already entered terminal decline. Since coal and natural gas are set to follow within the next 15 years, they can scarcely provide substitutes. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or biomass either do not provide transportation fuels or provide them in comparatively tiny quantities.
  2. A lack of the resources required to build new transportation infrastructure due to a permanent and deepening economic depression. Economies that fail to grow, or grow more slowly than the population, would not produce a surplus sufficient to maintain their existing infrastructure and vehicle fleets, never mind investing in ambitious new schemes.
  3. Shortages of strategic metals and key rare earth elements needed to manufacture high-technology components such as electric vehicle batteries, photovoltaic panels and high-efficiency electric motors.
    These are mined predominantly in China and are only available in restricted quantities.
  4. Social disruptions and political upheavals caused by population pressures in the face of a shrinking economy. These are unpredictable but would predictably result in disruptions to global supply chains, shortages of parts, and project delays and cancellations.
  5. Disruption of ocean freight once rising ocean levels begin to inundate port facilities. The current authoritative worst-case estimates are for a 1.5 metre sea level rise this century, but it is based on incomplete understanding of global warming effects and dynamics of polar ice cap melt. As knowledge improves, the estimates tend to double every few years, but they have not been keeping up with observed reality. The ultimate sea level rise may be as high as 20 metres.

In response, one would no doubt hear that solving such problems is outside of the area of expertise of transport technology professionals. Transport might be able to overcome some combination of such external problems, given enough time and money. For instance, a way might be found to manufacture high-technology components without using the rare earth elements in short supply. Or, if rising sea levels inundate ocean freight terminals, then, clearly, the terminals would have to be re-built again and again. However, if the resources were not available for such an ambitious and ultimately futile undertaking, then that would be regarded not as a technological but as a financial or even a political problem. Working one’s way up the technological food chain from the transport sector to the energy sector, one finds that energy professionals always blame production shortfalls and high prices on lack of sufficient investment. Why do they always say that the problems they face are not physical but economic? Economists, in turn, are perfectly content to ignore physical realities and treat all problems as problems of economic policy.

And so it would appear that the overall working assumption of every specialist, expert and professional in every discipline is ceteris paribus – all other things being equal. They will work just on those problems on which they are qualified to work, provided that sufficient research and development funds, materials and facilities are made available to them. They would prefer to assume that future demand patterns will be much like the present ones: to-be-developed electric cars and light rail lines would be used to convey commuters to and from their jobs and consumers to and from nearby businesses and shopping centres. It must be inconceivable to them that this equipment would be idled while the former commuters and shoppers, bankrupted by wasteful and ineffective investments in technology, would be forced to spread out across the rural landscape in search of hand-to-mouth sustenance. They would no doubt prefer to think that their profession will continue to exist and have relevance: jobs will lead to pensions, graduate students will grow up to be post-doctoral students and hope to become junior faculty members some day, grant money will continue to flow, conferences will be organised and peer-reviewed journals will be published. In every field of research, from oil field analysis to climatology, no matter how conclusively morbid the results, more research will always be needed. But won’t the sort of disruption we are going to encounter deal the coup de grace to the industrial-scientific establishment? This perfectly reasonable question is answered either with quiet despondency or with entirely unjustified accusations of defeatism or extremism. Such emotional responses are woefully unprofessional; we can and must do better.

One approach to doing better seems to have already exhausted its possibilities. A branch of science known as systems theory was once seen as a way to de-compartmentalise thinking and to formulate interdisciplinary solutions to the problems of large, complex systems. An echo of that approach can still be heard in some of the current thinking on climate science, which attempts to leverage conclusions based on observations and climate models to formulate international public policies to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Experience with both the Kyoto Treaty and the more recent failure to agree a Copenhagen Treaty has laid bare a critical flaw in such thinking: it confuses knowledge with power.

The ability to analyse a complex system does not in any way imply an ability to influence it. Scientists appear, as a group, to be naïve about politics, and are misled into accepting as fact a fiction of control perpetuated by politicians and industry and business leaders, who find it useful to pretend that they possess the power to alter systems over which they merely preside. Be it the fossil fuel industry, or mining and manufacturing, or industrial agriculture, or the weapons industry, or the automotive industry – all of these can be modelled as machines lacking an “off” switch. Yet each one requires energy, raw materials, and financial and social stability and can only continue to operate as long as these needs continue to be met, after which point they undergo systemic breakdowns and cascaded failure. Although an analysis based on systems theory cannot do anything to prevent them, perhaps it can offer valuable insights into how long these systems should be expected to continue functioning, or provide some detail on how their demise will unfold.

If we are willing to concede that the global industrial economy will not last through the 21st century, then, while it is still possible, we can put together technologies and designs appropriate for the post-industrial age, and set in motion forward-looking projects with the goal of creating enough momentum, in the form of strong local traditions, institutions, practices and skills, to carry them through periods of economic disruption and political dissolution. Future generations will have to learn to make do with much less of everything, and with much less research and development in particular. Working in the twilight years of the industrial era, we could offer them a great service by leaving behind a few designs that they will actually be able to build and use.

In particular, post-industrial transport is a subject that until now has been quite neglected. Quite a lot has already been done to elucidate some of the available options for post-industrial construction, agriculture, medicine and other areas. Yet the ability to travel, on foot or otherwise, is the Achilles’ heel of our ability to implement solutions in any other area: innovation and diffusion of new practices, technologies and ideas is bound to come to a near-standstill without the ability to move materials and people. Without long-distance transport, long-distance communication is bound to break down as well, and the current unified view of the planet and of humanity will dissolve. Unlike other components of the industrial life support system, industrial transport systems have no post-industrial back-ups worth mentioning. Post-industrial agriculture has its organic and permaculture alternatives, post-industrial architecture its passive solar, cob, straw bale, rammed earth and round timber alternatives, post-industrial medicine its traditional Chinese medicine and other alternative medical traditions and practices, but when it comes to transport there do not appear to be any presently available post-industrial alternatives beyond horses and our very own scantily shod feet.

Our contemporary transport systems are almost entirely dependent on refined petroleum products for both the maintenance of transport infrastructure and most of the actual movement of passengers and freight. It took decades to phase in large-scale transport technologies such as coal-fired steam engines or marine diesels. Moreover, these transitions could only have taken place in the context of an expanding economy and resource base, and with the older modes of transport still functioning. Thus, it seems outlandish to imagine that a gradual, non-disruptive transition to alternative transport technologies might still be possible. A resilient plan should be able to survive an almost complete shut-down and provide for bootstrapping to an entirely new mode, within a new set of physical limits. Take away petroleum, and none of the contemporary industrial transport systems remain functional. Even electric rail or electric cars, or even bicycles, which do not use petroleum directly, require an intact industrial economy that runs on fossil fuels, and on petroleum-based fuels for the delivery of spare parts and infrastructure maintenance. The current global recession and trends in the global oil market make it possible to sketch out how a Great Stranding will occur: transport fuels may still be plentiful in theory, but in practice they will become unaffordable, and therefore unavailable, to much of the population.

Two factors play a key role. The first is the maximum price that consumers can pay. Beyond this price, demand is destroyed and the recession deepens. Each time this price is reached, a great deal of wealth is destroyed as well, and when subsequently a partial recovery occurs, consumers are poorer, and the maximum price they can pay is lower. Thus the maximum price decreases over time. The second factor is the minimum price that oil producers can charge, as determined by their production costs, which rise over time as easy-to-produce resources become depleted. Beyond putting a floor under prices, this trend cannot continue past a physical limit: as the easy-to-exploit resources are depleted, a point is reached when the resources that are left, though they may yet be plentiful, cannot be produced profitably at any price, because the amount of energy required to do so would exceed the amount of energy they would yield. Thus the minimum price increases over time.

Although an argument can be made that this trend can be offset to some extent by developing alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, nuclear or biomass, a careful study of this question reveals that the net energy yield of alternative energies is, in all, rather poor, that the overall potential quantity of energy delivered by the alternatives is rather low, and that the massive financial investment that would be necessary to exploit them is increasingly unlikely. Most significantly, while individual countries may find solutions, there are simply no alternative sources of transport fuels in the quantities required globally for current systems to continue functioning, nor are there resources available to replace existing systems with anything else on a similar scale.

Thus we have two trend lines: a falling maximum price that consumers can afford, and a rising minimum price that producers have to charge. When the two lines cross, production shuts down. Since there is finer structure to both the supply and the demand, this is likely to happen in stages. On the demand destruction side, consumers can forgo holiday airline trips; they can stop driving cars and switch to walking or bicycling; they can heat just one room of the house; they can go back to the older tradition of the weekly splash in the tub (whether they need one or not) in place of the daily hot shower. This will allow them to make do with far less energy, and to sustain much higher energy prices. In turn, energy producers can cut their costs by producing less and closing wells or mines that are expensive to operate.

As the oil industry shuts down, maintenance requirements for roadways and bridges, sea ports and other infrastructure will no longer be met, while the price of transport services will come to exceed what businesses and consumers can afford to pay. There are already signs that we are in the early stages of such a slow-motion train-wreck. In 2009 the northernmost State of Maine could no longer afford to continue maintaining many of its paved rural roadways, which were being allowed to revert to dirt. At the opposite end of the transport spectrum, global airline travel had begun to decline, with most airlines reporting losses, and with air traffic still expanding only in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Such a gradual winding down of the industrial economy will leave little room for many non-essential activities, such as safety and efficiency upgrades, infrastructure maintenance, fleet replacement, and research and development. We can expect priority to be given to keeping existing equipment in running order by cannibalising and reusing parts as fewer and fewer vehicles remain in use. As this happens, safety and reliability will suffer, with many more cancellations and accidents, and cargoes being lost due to spoilage.

One can reasonably imagine that certain internal combustion vehicles will stay in sporadic use longer than others. For instance, limousines for weddings and hearses for funerals will perhaps remain motorised the longest, moving slowly over unpaved roads, since people would still be willing to pay extra for dignity on special occasions. We can also foresee that certain groups, such as governments, mafias, armed gangs and other social predators will be able to secure a supply of fuel the longest.

It is difficult to imagine that such a winding-down can happen uniformly, smoothly and peaceably. Inevitably, geography will be the determining factor: remote population centres, to which fuel must be brought overland, will have their supply curtailed long before those that are close to pipelines, railway lines, seaports or shipping channels. In communities that find themselves without access to transport fuels, much of the remaining economic activity will centre round gathering the necessary resources to escape, and they will steadily depopulate. Only the old and the sick will be left behind.

To see where this process might eventually lead – if we are lucky – it is helpful to look at pre-industrial settlement and transport patterns. After all, industrial, fossil fuel-powered transport has existed for just a blink of an eye in the long history of global trade and migration. By the time the fossil-fuel age arrived, the vast majority of the planet’s surface was already explored and settled. People moved about on foot, on horseback, by boat and by sailing ship, and these are the transport modes to which humanity will return once the fossil fuel-driven episode is over.

Transport costs can be grouped into two categories. The first is energy cost, encompassing consumables such as fuel, food and fodder, as well as the energy embodied in the equipment used – draft and pack animals, carts, boats, ships and so on. The second is cost of predation, which includes tributes, bribes, taxes, tariffs, duties and tolls, some officially sanctioned, some criminal. Efforts to avoid predation, by choosing pack animals over draft animals, or by taking detours to avoid toll roads, or by fording rivers instead of paying tolls at bridges, or by sailing random courses instead of following sea-lanes, or by sailing smaller vessels so as to pose a smaller, less desirable target, or by travelling in armed convoys to dissuade would-be robbers, and so on, form a grey area between the two. The upper limit on the amount of transport that is feasible is limited by the sum of the two costs. There is also a trade-off between the two: higher energy efficiency allows for more and fatter prey, and, in due course, for more and fatter predators. On the other hand, successful efforts at avoiding predation may increase energy costs but lower predation costs, resulting in greater overall efficiency and a larger volume of cargo that actually reaches its destination. In this case, greater resilience is achieved by “wasting” energy on predation avoidance rather than by striving to be maximally energy-efficient while inadvertently maximising the level of predation.

For some cargoes in the past, the cost of predation as a result of official tolls and unofficial tributes collected along the way could double the goods’ final price. Tolls were collected along inland waterways and at bridges and river crossings on major roadways. In more remote areas, and especially near mountain passes, brigandage was widespread. Often the only distinction between official and unofficial predation was that the former was sanctioned by the local aristocracy.

For bulk commodities, the energy cost of transport imposes hard limits on the maximum distance that is feasible. For instance, if the product is hay, and the mules pulling the cart eat half of it by the time they reach their destination, then either the trip was futile, or the mules would have nothing to eat on the way back. The energy value of the cargo also imposes an upper limit on the level of predation that is sustainable; if the limit was exceeded frequently, the predators would deplete their prey. Since moving bulk goods by barge is more energy efficient, canals could charge higher and more frequent tolls than toll roads. But the ease with which tolls could be collected along canals often led to abuses by rapacious local officials, forcing canal traffic back onto the less energy-efficient roads and depressing the overall level of trade.

Wheeled vehicles were used for local transport of bulk goods (hay, firewood, grain and other bulk commodities) but not for long-distance transport, which relied on caravans of pack animals. Energy considerations made long-distance overland transport impractical for bulk commodities, restricting it to high-priced items, such as specie (gold and silver), works of art and craftsmanship such as porcelain and cloth, and spices and medicinals. For such high-priced goods, transport costs represented a much smaller fraction of their final price, making avoidance of predation far more important than conserving energy. Wheeled vehicles make predation avoidance more difficult, because they have to use roads and bridges, whereas pack animals can use footpaths, steep mountain passes, dry riverbeds, and can ford rivers and streams. Unlike wheeled vehicles, pack animals can be pulled off the road and hidden by making them lie down behind vegetation, to avoid confrontations with both highwaymen and local officials.

Overland transport is orders of magnitude less energy-efficient than water transport. Before the advent of railways and coal-fired steam locomotives, it cost more to move freight a few kilometres overland than it did to ship it across the ocean by sail. The fortunes of coastal cities were determined by the quality of their harbours. In the New World, cities such as New York, Boston, Charleston and San Francisco became transport hubs because of the large numbers of ocean-going vessels their harbours could easily and safely accommodate. Inland transport relied on navigable rivers and canals, making use of wind and tide to move cargo as far as possible up tidal estuaries. Where wind and currents were unfavourable or unavailable, propulsion had to be provided by draft animals (including imprisoned or enslaved humans) either rowing or pulling the vessel from the towpath. For this reason, inland cities were often built in tidal estuaries at the uppermost reach of the tides and along rivers, lakes and canals.

Coal never fully supplanted sail either in coastal freight or on the high seas, and it was not until the widespread adoption of the marine diesel engine in the mid-21st century that the last sail-based merchant vessels were finally decommissioned. With the exception of very profitable routes and cargoes, such as the China tea trade, which was served by large and fast tea clippers, most sailing vessels were rather small, with large numbers of schooners of around 60 feet (18 metres) and crews of about a dozen, and with the vast majority of ocean-going vessels under 100 feet (30 metres) in length. There was a tendency to build larger merchant vessels in the richer trading nations and during politically stable and prosperous times but, even there, less prosperous and uncertain times brought a reversion to norm. There were many reasons for this, from the inability to secure financing for an ambitious shipbuilding endeavour, to lack of profitable cargo with which to fill a large vessel.

A different logic applied to building military vessels, where ability to project force was prioritised above economy, and where large crews could be obtained cheaply from the ranks of young men who were pressed into service by the simple expedient of denying them any other option. Conditions on board could be almost arbitrarily brutal, with discipline imposed through flogging. Disgruntled seamen swelled the ranks of pirates and privateers, who were often unopposed in their confrontations, because the seamen often sympathised with the pirates rather than with their own loathed and despised officers.

Although, within the larger naval empires, the horrid naval traditions often carried over to the merchant fleets, including the megalomania, the brutality, and the purpose-bred viciousness of the officer class, in general merchant vessels could not exceed a size that could be sailed profitably, with full loads of cargo and the smallest possible crew. Significantly, a crew of about a dozen is the optimal size for a self-organising, self-managing, tightly knit group. Anthropological research has shown that groups larger than this size either have to expend an inordinate amount of time on social grooming activities (politics) to preserve group cohesion, or they have to be structured in a rigid hierarchy and disciplined to instil blind obedience, with vastly lower effectiveness in either case. Such limits appear to be biologically determined: humans have evolved to be most effective in self-organized groups of about a dozen. A smaller crew is problematic, because there would not be enough hands to comfortably man all watches, there being typically two four-hour watches per day per crewman, and two crewmen per watch, for a minimum of six crewmen. Add the captain and the first mate, and that brings it up to eight; a cook (since feeding this large a crew is quite a job) and a bosun (who typically does not stand watches) bring it up to ten. Throw in a mechanic and a steward, and you have a full dozen. And so it turns out that the most efficient vessel is one that can be sailed by a crew of about a dozen men.

High costs of predation were by no means unique to overland transport. At sea, both privateering and piracy abounded, the distinction hinging on the presence of official sanction rather than the manner in which the business was transacted. Privateers carried government-issued letters of marque allowing them to take tribute from citizens of a certain country as reparation for past misdeeds, such as damage caused or non-payment of loans. Pirates lacked such official permission, but the distinction was often an informal one. Additional duties were often imposed at the harbours that were the point of departure and the point of arrival. Since ocean-going vessels are restricted by their deep draught in their options of harbours and port facilities, it is easy for authorities to collect duties and fees from them. Moreover, certain governments went beyond this and designated certain ports as “staple ports” – the only ones through which commercially important products, such as Sicilian wheat, could be shipped, to simplify the process of collecting export duties.

Ocean-going ships were built with economy foremost in mind, cargo capacity second, and crew safety and comfort at sea left as an afterthought. Typically about a third of the expense of a journey was represented by the amortisation and maintenance costs of the vessel itself, with the remaining two-thirds going to the crew, as provisions and pay. If the vessel was to be defended against piracy, the additional expense of arming it could as much as triple the costs. Before the development of naval guns, security at sea was largely a matter of having superior numbers in hand-to-hand combat. The advent of naval guns made the contest rather uneven for a time, with large naval ships being able to threaten any smaller vessel with almost total impunity. With the arrival of ubiquitous and powerful small arms, shoulder-fired weapons, and a variety of special-purpose missiles and explosives, the odds have been evened, and mutual assured destruction prevails on the high seas. Navy ships have to remain on constant alert against even a small dinghy that might cause them serious damage as happened in Aden in 2000 with the US Navy destroyer USS Cole. It is quite a challenge for pirates to gain control of a vessel without getting killed or sunk if the prey vessel is armed and keeps a sharp lookout. Most confrontations with would-be pirates can now be prevented by a simple show of arms.

Although every effort was made to cut costs, the design and construction of ships was mired in conservatism everywhere and sailing technology was slow to diffuse westward from China and the Arab world. Even then, it was absorbed only partially. The pinnacle of Western sailing ship evolution is the unwieldy square-rigged vessel, which required the crew to go aloft in all conditions to handle sail – something that is neither necessary nor desirable, and one of the many problems that the Chinese and the Arabs had solved many centuries previously. And yet these manifestly imperfect vessels were the ones that explored and conquered just about every corner of the globe – a process that had largely run its course by the time the first steam-ship was launched in the 1840s. Countless lives were lost due to poor design, shoddy construction and incompetent command, but so great are the advantages of water transport over land transport that the gains were considered worth the risk.

In the light of this, what transport technologies will be relevant to an energy-scarce, climate-disrupted, socially chaotic future? We can foresee that road traffic will be greatly reduced as paved roads revert to dirt and become eroded and, in places, impassable, as bridges collapse from lack of maintenance, and as predation by both local officials and highwaymen increases both the costs and the dangers. Once again, pedestrian traffic and caravans of pack animals will try to evade official and unofficial predation, opting for the less popular, more circuitous footpaths instead of the direct and open road. Canals and other navigable waterways will once again play a much larger role in inland transport, with barges pulled by draught animals along towpaths and with sail-boats carrying freight and passengers along the sea-coasts. As the sea-ports that currently serve container ships, bulk carriers and tankers are submerged under the rising seas, the current hub-and-spoke transport networks will collapse, and smaller coastal communities will once again find ample reason to want to build and provision ocean-going vessels to trade with faraway lands.

Here are some questions we might ask ourselves

  • “How can we help? What useful technological legacy can we bequeath to future generations?”
  • “What if, instead of squandering its remaining resources on lavish parting presents for its ageing rentier class, the current profit-and-growth economic paradigm were to be quietly replaced with the idea that society should serve its children and grandchildren, should any be lucky enough to survive”?
  • “What can we usefully accomplish in the time remaining before inescapable resource constraints force industrial life-support systems to stop functioning? What technological heirlooms and key pieces of learning could we convey, in the form of a living tradition, to give future generations a chance at surviving the dystopian future we are now working so hard to construct for them?”

It is becoming clear that future generations will be faced with a number of new challenges. One is that rapid climate change is very likely to put an end to the last ten thousand years of benign, stable climate. It was this rare episode of climate stability that allowed agriculture to develop and flourish and permitted nomadic tribes to settle down in one place without the risk of starvation. It allowed agrarian societies to produce such large food surpluses that cities and towns could become established, eventually growing to millions of inhabitants, all fed with crops grown elsewhere, at first in the immediate vicinity and now quite far away. As the climate deteriorates, people will be forced to return to a migratory and nomadic existence to minimise the risk of starvation by staying close to the sources of their food and diversifying them across large geographic areas. In other words, they will go to the food rather than having the food brought to them.

Another challenge will be posed by rising sea levels. The latest forecasts indicate that coastal communities will either adapt to life with constant flooding, salt-water inundation and storm erosion, or be abandoned. Ancient ports such as Cádiz, which was built by the Phoenicians and has been in continuous use ever since, will no longer be able to function. Formerly sheltered harbours will become exposed as barrier islands are eroded away by storms. Material from newly eroded shores will form shoals and silt up harbours and navigation channels. Efforts to resist the deterioration such as defending, existing shorelines, building higher jetties and breakwaters, constructing dykes and sea-walls and dredging harbours and inlets, will eventually prove futile as sea levels are likely continue to rise for many centuries. Consequently, those who wish to occupy and use the shoreline will have to find ways to cope with constant flooding.

In the parts of the world where people still walk or use pack and draught animals, they will muddle through somehow but it remains a large open question whether or not they will be able to continue to traverse oceans. Throughout history, the ability to sail the oceans has conferred tremendous advantages. Seafaring pre-dates industry, but it does require access to appropriate boat-building materials and a seafaring tradition.

Future generations will face three major problems in their attempts to preserve their seafaring abilities:

  1. Current, industrial shipbuilding practices, as well as the vessels themselves, will be of no use without both a functioning industrial economy and the widespread availability of transport fuels.
  2. Going back to traditional, wood-based shipbuilding techniques will not be possible because logging and deforestation have depleted the supply of the high-quality timber
  3. Access to the ocean will be in most places become complicated as the rising seas silt up inlets, navigation channels and harbours and wash away waterfronts. Deep-draught ocean vessels will find land access obstructed and difficult due to the eroded shoreline.

The vast majority of existing ocean vessels are welded out of steel plate and are propelled by diesel engines that burn bunker fuel, a low-grade petroleum distillate. For their operation, they require industrial facilities such as container ports (for loading and unloading cargo), bunkering ports (for taking on fuel) and dry docks (for maintenance). A vanishingly small percentage of overall gross tonnage is comprised of sailing vessels, which are built and operated mainly for the purposes of preserving maritime and naval history, luxury and ostentation, recreation and sport – pursuits lacking any practical merit. A truly infinitesimal number of more practical boats is custom-built by professionals or amateurs, and an even smaller number of these is actually sailed extensively on the high seas, but these voyages provide the vast majority of interesting contemporary seafaring narratives (“yarns”). Some of these unusual vessels can provide a glimpse of the future. Although the vast majority of even these vessels rely on industrial materials (marine plywoods and epoxies, fasteners, aluminium extrusions for masts and spars, stainless steel wire rope for the standing rigging and petrochemical-based synthetics such as long-strand polyester for the sails and the running rigging) their overall designs are sometimes sufficiently low-tech (which is to say, advanced) to survive the transition to the post-industrial age.

A revival of traditional, wooden shipbuilding is inconceivable in most places, as the required quantities of high-quality timber would be prohibitively expensive and its local supply would be quite limited. Most areas of the world, and especially those near sea-coasts or navigable rivers, have been extensively logged and largely denuded of old-growth trees – those with dense, clear grain that are useful for building hulls. Forest productivity is also being reduced because rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing rain to become more acidic. Carbonic acid has a number of negative effects on trees: it dissolves aluminium compounds present in the soil, which plugs up tree roots, starving the trees of nutrients, it dissolves nutrients in the soil, causing them to leach out and drain away, and it harms soil biota that help trees absorb nutrients. Thus even concerted long-term efforts at growing trees suitable for shipbuilding may not yield good results.

Large, deep-draught vessels would not be suitable for the new coastal conditions. Smallish ones, about 60 feet (18 metres) long, with a shoal draught of about 4 feet (120 cm) would be much better. They would have to be sturdily built with flat (rockered but not flared) bottoms to let them settle upright on the bottom at low tide. But it would also have to be a seaworthy, blue water sailing vessel, able to ride out storms up to and including tropical cyclones.

Dmitry Orlov's shoal-draft boat, Hogfish, at anchor in Salem Harbor, Mass.

In 2006, I put my findings together in an article, The New Age of Sail [1]. At that time I had had very little actual ocean sailing experience, and had to rely almost entirely on second-hand information. I have since purchased a sailboat of the sort I described: a versatile and practical shoal-draught ocean-capable boat. My wife and I sold our flat and moved aboard the boat. We have since spent close to two years sailing the entire length of the eastern coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida, including rivers, canals and long stretches of the open Atlantic. We have encountered some very lively conditions whipped up by tropical storms and hurricanes. In the process, I was able to learn enough about boat-building to improve the design, building a new rudder and making numerous other adjustments and improvements. I also fitted it with solar panels and a wind turbine, a composting toilet, and a rainwater collection system.

I am very happy to report that just about everything I wrote in The New Age of Sail I have been able to confirm by direct experiment. I am also quite convinced that, in spite of what some sailing traditionalists and fashion-victims might think, shoal-draft seaworthy boats are very much a reality, and that it is quite possible for a dedicated home-builder to vastly exceed the results of a commercial boat-builder at a small fraction of the cost. Such boats may not please those people whose minds are fixated on the idea of getting to the finish line just a tiny bit faster than the next competitor, or people who have a fetish for varnished wood and polished bronze, or the various other strange fixations and affectations that affect what little has remained of the sailing world, but it is quite hard to see why they would be relevant.

My boat is decidedly not post-industrial. It is constructed of marine plywood (fir veneers laminated with synthetic adhesive), sheathed in epoxy and fibreglass and painted with polyurethane paints. The masts and spars are aluminium extrusions, the rigging is stainless steel, and the sails and lines are of synthetic fibre. It is equipped with advanced electronics, including an autopilot and a GPS chart-plotter. Yet there are many things about the overall design of this boat that are just right. It only draws two feet, it handles very well with the centreboard up (which is only needed when sailing upwind or manoeuvring in close quarters) and so it can be sailed over shallows. It can be run aground or beached without risk of damage and it settles upright at low tide. It rides quietly to anchor even in high winds (a surprisingly important but neglected aspect of yacht design). It is fast for its size, and it is so stiff that it is virtually impossible to capsize. Its almost square hull cross-section provides far more stowage space than round-bilge boats of much deeper draught. Its motion in a seaway is steady and gentle, allowing us to enjoy a nice cup of tea in conditions where the crews of other boats apparently have had to brace themselves to avoid being tossed about the cabin.

But the choice of materials poses a problem. However, as Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And so, by eliminating all industrial materials and technologies, as well as the pre-industrial materials that are no longer affordable or available in quantity, I have arrived at what must be, in the end, the only viable set of options for building an unlimited number of ocean-going vessels of the sort that would be required. Given the eventual unavailability of steel plate and welding technology, or high-quality hardwood, or petrochemical-based composites and synthetics, the one remaining choice of hull material is… ferrocement. Many such hulls have been built, with mostly good results, the bad ones generally resulting from improper techniques used by overly ambitious beginners enticed by the very low cost of the materials involved.
If done correctly, the resulting hull is strong, long-lasting, maintenance-free and fireproof. Cement is a pre-industrial material that was already known to the ancient Romans, who used it, among other things, to surface the spillways of aqueducts. It is currently available as an industrial product and in vast quantities, but in the small quantities needed by artisans for plastering hulls it can be produced using non-industrial techniques, by crushing and baking out limestone and clay in home-made kilns. It could conceivably be made using renewable energy: baking out limestone is potentially a good application for concentrating solar technology, while crushing and grinding can be powered by windmills or waterwheels. Limestone is available in unlimited quantities through manual surface mining in many places throughout the planet. The preferred aggregate used for building ferrocement hulls is river sand – sharp, almost completely indestructible granules of eroded hard rock that have not been weathered by surf or wind – a material that is also ubiquitous.

The steel armature that holds the cement plaster together typically consists of small diameter steel pipe, steel rod and steel mesh. These are industrial materials, but they will remain available for a long time past the end of the industrial age, in the relatively small quantities required for building hulls, because they can easily be reclaimed from abandoned industrial structures and facilities. The armature (called “the basket”) is assembled by hand, with simple hand tools, by bending the material into shape and tying it together with short lengths of wire. While the steel armature is a well-understood construction method giving a strong, durable result, it may be possible to replace the mesh and perhaps other parts of the armature with natural fibre. Clearly, thorough testing would be needed before a boat-builder would commit to such a change but this is not an urgent issue because the quantities of scrap metal that the two centuries of industrial development will have left behind will be sufficient for building a very large number of ferrocement hulls far into the future.

Covering the basket with mortar is usually performed by a gang of expert plasterers in a continuous session that may span several days. To become a first-rate ferrocement plasterer, one would start by becoming a master plasterer and then specifically train for the much more demanding task of plastering hulls. To control porosity, the mortar mix used for hulls has to be quite dry compared to the mixes used for other types of construction, making it more difficult to form it into sheets without any voids and without pulling aggregate to the surface. The skin of mortar has to be fair and smooth and as thin as possible (typically between 12 and 20 mm) but thick enough to prevent any part of the basket from showing through (to prevent corrosion). Tight process control is needed for optimum results, which are achieved by controlling temperature and humidity, keeping all contaminants out of the mortar, using precise mixing and plastering techniques, and keeping to a specific hydration schedule. After plastering, the hull has to be kept moist for about three months, during which it slowly gains strength and plasticity.

Unfortunately, the effects of improper technique often become apparent much later, when the hull leaks, abrades or cracks and the armature rusts, resulting in a shorter service life. However, sudden and catastrophic failures seem to be a rarity, and an older hull that would no longer be used for ocean sailing can still be considered safe for use in sheltered waters. Ferrocement hulls are quite easy to repair, and some that have suffered heavy damage by becoming impaled on rocks and coral-heads were subsequently placed back into service after being quite casually repaired with cement mix and a trowel.

There are likely to be opportunities to perfect the properties of the mortar. Microscopic cracking of the mortar, which is structurally benign but increases porosity, can be prevented by the addition of glass fibre chemically treated to withstand the alkaline environment of the mortar. While glass fibre is composed of minerals that are plentiful, it is currently an industrial product. However, as with cement, it is possible to imagine that a way will be found to produce it using concentrating passive solar in combination with wind or water power. The addition of glass fibre to the aggregate also makes the mortar lighter and more impact-resistant: some recent formulations for architectural use have resulted is quite thin sheets that nevertheless can withstand repeated blows with a pick. Another possible direction of research involves making the mortar self-repairing by inoculating the mortar mix with a culture of calcifying bacteria, along with their favourite food (urea). When a crack starts to form, the bacteria become active and fill the crack with new calcium. It remains to be seen whether increasing ocean acidity resulting from carbon dioxide emissions will interfere with this process.

So the prospects for building quite serviceable sail-boat hulls without recourse to industrial materials (with the exception of reused steel) appear to be reasonably good, provided the skills can be established ahead of time and passed on as part of a living tradition. But what about the other essential components of a sailing vessel – the masts, the sails, and the rigging? The current, industrial practice is to use extruded aluminium masts, or masts glued up out of precisely fitted planks using high-technology synthetic adhesives. In the past, sailing vessels had “grown” masts, which consisted of a single tree trunk. The smaller vessels could use such a mast in a free-standing fashion, supported only at the deck and shaped to give it a taper toward the top. On larger vessels the masts were supported on all sides by tensioned lines. By the time the age of sail was nearing its end, however, trees of the right size and quality for “grown” masts had become a rarity and shipwrights were forced to switch to “made” masts which consisted of many smaller tree trunks shaped and held together using dowels and hoops.

Although “made” masts could be given arbitrary thickness and taper, eliminating the need for standing rigging, apparently shipwrights could not imagine such a radical departure from the norm. For such radical post-industrial shipbuilding solutions we have to turn to the ancient Chinese, who explored much of the earth in their large sailing junks, which, incidentally, were equipped with free-standing “made” masts of bamboo. The advantages of free-standing masts are numerous: their design is much simpler, they have less wind resistance up high where wind speeds are highest, they can be taken down more easily, to make the vessel less noticeable when navigating inland and so to avoid predation, or to pass under fixed bridges, overhanging trees and other obstructions. It is difficult to design free-standing masts that are particularly tall, but since shoal-draft vessels of the sort being considered here cannot support masts that are much taller than the length of the vessel without making it unstable, equipping them with free-standing, tapered, “made” masts seems the obvious choice.

With regard to sails and control lines, the modern practice is to use low-stretch synthetic fibre such as long-strand polyester. The high strength and low stretch of these materials allowed designs to progress very far in the direction of very large expanses of fabric unsupported by any internal structure, controlled by a few lines, all under very high tension. The pre-industrial practice was to use much weaker and stretchier natural fibre: cotton or linen for sails, and manilla or hemp for rope, limiting the size of each sail. However, the ancient Chinese have done extremely well with gigantic sails made of even weaker materials such as woven grass mat by using an ingenious rig that distributed the loads over many small lines and panels of sailcloth: the Chinese junk rig. Modern adherents of this rig rave about its numerous merits such as the fact that it can be controlled as a unit, and have crossed oceans with sails so threadbare that they could be punctured with a fist, yet they held together through ocean storms because the individual panels were small and braced by stiff battens. At present, the Chinese junk rig is a splendid solution waiting for the problem that is about to present itself: the end of strong, low-stretch synthetic sailcloth. The junk rig is wonderfully versatile, allowing a vessel to be controlled without leaving the pilothouse, tacked up a narrow channel and even sailed backwards. Blondie Hasler, who has crossed the Atlantic in his junk-rigged boat “Jester” wrote that the ease of handling was such that he could imagine making the entire crossing in bathrobe and slippers, without once venturing out on deck.

But sometimes an auxiliary form of propulsion is needed – if only to be able to steer when drifting in a tidal or river current while becalmed, or to pass under obstructions with the masts lowered, or to shift berth in close quarters. Luckily, we can once again turn to the Chinese for a post-industrial solution that has already stood the test of time. Oars are not particularly useful on anything but very small sailboats because they would have to be quite long to reach down to the water. This would make them unwieldy and their action awkward and inefficient. Oars are inefficient in any case, because they have to be lifted out of the water and retracted for each stroke, wasting time and energy. The Chinese solution for propelling larger sailing vessels is the yuloh: a long, slightly curved sculling oar that extends aft with its blade floating just below the water. To propel the vessel, it is pivoted and moved to and fro by crewmen standing before the mainmast. The resulting motion is vaguely similar to that of a fishtail. With roughly 1kW peak power output per crewman, and with 2 yulohs worked by 4 crewmen each, as much as 8kW (10 horsepower) can be produced for a duration. On flat, still water this is more than sufficient to move even a fairly large vessel. When not in use, the blades of the yulohs are lifted out of the water and lashed to the sides of the hull.

Vessels of the design sketched out in this article would be of immediate practical value to numerous people throughout the world because of the wide variety of purposes to which they can be put. They can be used for transporting passengers and freight over open water and on rivers and canals. They can be used as floating, mobile workshops, schools, clinics, warehouses, offices, and residences on coastal land that is increasingly prone to flooding. This would allow people to hold onto their land for as long as possible and to float closer to shore or further inland when the time comes without becoming dispossessed in the process. The boats can be used for seasonal migrations, to gather scarce resources over a wider expanse and to avoid having to spend summers or winters in hot or cold climates. All that is required for building such boats is a bit of coastal land and materials, some of which are free (river sand), some quite inexpensive (cement, recycled metal), and others that can be grown and worked by hand (bamboo, hemp). The largest input is, of course, labour. Much of it can be semi-skilled physical labour that can be contributed by the local community. Some highly experienced, expert labour is also needed but only at certain key stages of the building process to ensure that the results are long-lasting, safe and reliable.

In a world where rising seas are already putting millions of people at risk of losing their homes, their lives, or both, a programme of building large numbers of inexpensive, practical, utilitarian and versatile sailing craft is a direct way to provide flood-proof, earthquake-proof, fireproof and storm-proof habitation, to build communities, to create local resilience, and to provide hope for a survivable future. It is a way to create connections between different parts of the planet that can survive into the post-industrial age. It enables people and goods to be carried in a way that avoids the predation that will be an inevitable element of a disrupted time. It offers us an opportunity to make sure that we remain a seafaring species even as the fossil-fuel era recedes into history, and gives us a way to salvage something very useful out of the wreckage of our industrial past.


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The psychological roots of resource overconsumption

Nate Hagens

Humans have an innate need for status and for novelty in their lives. Unfortunately, the modern world has adopted very energy- and resource-intensive ways of meeting those needs. Other ways are going to have to be found as part of the move to a more sustainable world.

Most people associate the word “sustainability” with changes to the supply side of our modern way of life such as using energy from solar flows rather than fossil fuels, recycling, green tech and greater efficiency. In this essay, however, I will focus on the demand-side drivers that explain why we continue to seek and consume more stuff.

When addressing ‘demand-side drivers’, we must begin at the source: the human brain. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain have been built on top of each other via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding via changes and mutations what helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism to incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in ancient environments are no longer around. Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating which, in an environment of privation and danger where most ‘iterations’ of our evolution happened, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities.

This essay outlines two fundamental ways in which the evolutionarily derived reward pathways of our brains are influencing our modern overconsumption. First, financial wealth accumulation and the accompanying conspicuous consumption are generally regarded as the signals of modern success for our species. This gives the rest of us environmental cues to compete for more and more stuff as a proxy of our status and achievement. A second and more subtle driver is that we are easily hijacked by and habituated to novel stimuli. As we shall see, the prevalence of novelty today eventually demands higher and higher levels of neural stimulation, which often need increased consumption to satisfy. Thus it is this combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of novel activities that underlies our large appetite for resource throughput.


Evolution has honed and culled ‘what worked’ by combining the substrate of life with eons’ worth of iterations. Modern biological research has focused on the concept of ‘relative fitness’, a term for describing those adaptations that are successful in propelling genes, or suites of genes, into the next generation and that will have out-competed those that were deleterious or did not keep up with environmental change. Though absolute fitness mattered to the individual organisms while they were alive, looking back it was ‘relative fitness’ that shaped the bodies and brains of the creatures on the planet today.

Status, both in humans and other species, has historically been a signaling mechanism that minimised the costs of competition, whether for reproductive opportunities or for material resources. If you place ten chickens in an enclosure there will ensue a series of fights until a pecking order is established. Each bird quickly learns who it can and cannot beat and a status hierarchy is created, thus making future fights (and wastes of energy) less common. Physical competition is costly behaviour that requires energy and entails risk of injury. Status is one way to determine who one can profitably challenge and who one cannot. In our ancestral environment, those men (and women) that successfully moved up the social hierarchy improved their mating and resource prospects. Those at the bottom of the status rung did not only possess fewer mating opportunities but many did not mate at all. Status among our ancestors was probably linked to those attributes providing consistent benefits to the tribe: hunting prowess, strength, leadership ability, storytelling skills etc. In modern humans, status is defined by what our modern cultures dictate. As we are living through an era of massive energy gain from fossil fuels, pure physical prowess has been replaced by digital wealth, fast cars, political connections, etc.

It follows that the larger a culture’s resource subsidy (natural wealth), the more opportunity there is for ‘status badges’ uncorrelated with basic needs such as strength, intelligence, adaptability, stamina, etc. Though ‘what’ defines status may be culturally derived, status hierarchies themselves are part of our evolved nature. Ancestral hominids at the bottom of the mating pecking order, ceteris paribus, are not our ancestors. Similarly, many of our ancestors had orders of magnitude more descendants than others. For example, scientists recently discovered an odd geographical preponderance for a particular Y chromosome mutation which turns out to be originally descended from Genghis Khan. Given the 16 million odd male descendants alive today with this Y marker, Mr. Khan is theorised to have had 800,000 times the reproductive success than the average male alive on the planet in 1200 AD. This does not imply that we are all pillagers and conquerors — only that various phenotypic expressions have had ample opportunity to become hardwired in our evolutionary past. [1]

Mating success is a key driver in the natural world. This is all studied and documented by evolutionary research into the theory of “sexual selection”, which Charles Darwin once summarised as the effects of the “struggle between the individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex.” [2] Biologists have shown that a primary way to reliably demonstrate one’s ‘quality’ during courtship is to display a high-cost signal — e.g. a heavy and colourful peacock’s tail, an energy-expending bird-song concert, or a $100,000 sports car. [3] These costly “handicap” signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake. [4]

In this sense ‘waste’ was an evolutionary selection! Think of three major drawbacks to a male peacock of growing such a hugely ornate tail:

  1. the energy, vitamins and minerals needed to go into the creation of the tail could have been used for other survival/reproductive needs,
  2. the tail makes the bird more likely to be spotted by a predator,
  3. If spotted, the cumbersome tail makes escape from a predator less likely.

Overall, though, these negative “fitness hits” must have been outweighed by the drab female peahen’s preference for males with larger, more ornate tails. With this filter, we can understand the rationale and prevalence of Veblen goods (named after the 19th-century economist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’) — a group of commodities that people increasingly prefer to buy as their price gets higher because the greater price confers greater status. This biological precept of signalling theory is alive and well in the human culture.


Modern man evolved from earlier hominids under conditions of privation and scarcity at least until about 10,000 years ago. The period since then has been too short a time to make a significant change to millions of years of prior neural sculpture. Nature made the brain’s survival systems incredibly efficient. The brain is based on about 40% of all our available genes and consumes over 20% of our calorific intake. Incremental changes in how our brains recognise, process and react to the world around us either contributed to our survival and thus were carried forward, or died out.

Some changes affected salience, the ability to notice what is important, different or unusual. Salience recognition is part of what’s called the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway. This pathway is a system of neurons integral to survival efficiency, helping us to instantly decide what in the environment should command our attention. Historically, immediate feedback on what is ‘new’ was critical to both avoiding danger and procuring food. Because most of what happens around us each day is predictable, processing every detail of a familiar habitat wastes brain energy. Such activity would also slow down our mental computer so that what are now minor distractions could prove deadly. Thus our ancestors living on the African savanna paid little attention to the stable mountains on the horizon but were quick to detect any movement in the bush, on the plains, or at the riverbank. Those more able to detect and process ‘novel cues’ were more likely to obtain rewards needed to survive and pass on their suites of genes. Indeed, modern experimental removal of the (dopamine) receptor genes in animals causes them to reduce exploratory behaviour, a key variable related to inclusive fitness in animal biology. [5]

We are instinctually geared for individual survival — being both reward-driven, and curious. It was these two core traits that the father of economics himself, Adam Smith, predicted in The Wealth of Nations would be the drivers of world economic growth. According to Smith, uniting the twin economic engines of self-interest (which he termed self-love) and curiosity was ambition — “the competitive human drive for social betterment”. About 70 years later, after reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Charles Darwin recognised the parallel between the pursuit of wealth in human societies and the competition for resources that occurred among animal species. Our market system of allocating resources and ‘status’ can therefore be seen as the natural social culmination for an intelligent species finding an abundance of resources.

But, as we shall soon see, the revered Scottish philosopher could not have envisioned heli-skiing, Starbucks, slot machines, Facebook, email and many other stimulating and pleasurable objects and activities that people engage in today and to which they so easily become accustomed.

The mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system

“Americans find prosperity almost everywhere, but not happiness. For them desire for well-being has become a restless burning passion which increases with satisfaction. To start with emigration was a necessity for them: now it is a sort of gamble, and they enjoy the sensations as much as the profit.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 1831

Traditional drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behaviour-regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters in our brains. [6] Addicts can become habituated to the feelings they get from cocaine, heroin or alcohol, and they need to increase their consumption over time to get the same neurotransmitter highs. This same neural reward architecture is present in all of us when considering our ecological footprints: we become habituated via a positive feedback loop to the ‘chemical sensations’ we receive from shopping, keeping up with the Joneses (conspicuous consumption), pursuing more stock profits, and myriad other stimulating activities that a surplus of cheap energy has provided.

An explosion of neuroscience and brain-imaging research tells us that drugs of abuse activate the brain’s dopamine reward system that regulates our ability to feel pleasure and be motivated for “more”. When we have a great experience — a glance from a pretty girl, a lovemaking romp in the woods, a plate of fresh sushi, hitting 777 on a one-eyed bandit, catching a lunker pike, watching a sunset, hearing a great guitar riff etc. — our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel warm, ‘in the zone’ and happy. After a while, the extra dopamine gets flushed out of our system and we return to our baseline level. We go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience. But the previous experience has been logged into our brain’s limbic system, which, in addition to being a centre for pleasure and emotion, holds our memory and motivation circuitry. [7] We now begin to look forward to encores of such heady stimuli and are easily persuaded towards activities that promise such a chemical reprise. These desires have their beginnings outside our conscious awareness. Recent brain-imaging research shows that drug and sexual cues as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the dopamine circuitry, even if a person is not conscious of the cues. Perhaps there are artistically shaped sexual images hidden in advertisements for whiskey after all…

Historically, this entire system evolved from the biological imperative of survival. Food meant survival, sex meant survival (of genes or suites of genes), and additional stockpiles of both provided success relative to others, both within and between species. There was a discrete payoff to waiting hours for some movement in the brush that signaled ‘food’, or the sound of a particular bird that circled a tree with a beehive full of honey, etc. Our pattern recognition system on the Pleistocene would have been a grab-bag of various environmental stimuli that ‘excited’ our brains towards action that correlated with resources (typically food). In sum, the brain’s reward pathways record both the actual experience of pleasure as well as ensuring that the behaviours that led to it are remembered and repeated. Irrespective of whether they are ‘good’ for the organism in the current context — they ‘feel’ good, which is the mechanism our brain has left us as a heritage of natural selection.

The (very important) mechanism of habituation

Habituation — getting used to something — and subsequent substance abuse and addiction develops because of the way we learn. Learning depends crucially on the discrepancy between the prediction and occurrence of a reward. A reward that is fully predicted does not contribute to learning. [8] The important implication of this is that learning advances only to the extent to which something is unpredicted and slows progressively as a stimuli becomes more predictable. [9] As such, unexpected reward is a core driver in how we learn, how we experience life, and how we consume resources.

Dopamine activation has been linked with addictive, impulsive activity in numerous species. Dopamine is released within the brain not only to rewarding stimuli but also to those events that predict rewards. It has long been known that two groups of neurons, in the ventral tegmental and the substantia nigra pars compacta areas, and the dopamine they release, are critical for reinforcing certain kinds of behaviour. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz measured the activity of these dopamine neurons while thirsty monkeys waited for a tone which was followed by a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths. After a series of fixed, steady amounts of juice, the volume of juice was suddenly doubled. The rate of neuron firing went from about 3 per second to 80 per second. But after several trials, after the monkeys had become habituated to this new level of reward, their dopamine firing rate returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second after the squirt of juice. The monkeys had become habituated to the coming reward! The opposite happened when the reward was reduced without warning. The firing rate dropped dramatically, but eventually returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second. [10]

The first time we experience a drug or alcohol high, the amount of chemical we ingest often exceeds the levels of naturally occurring neurotransmitters in our bodies by an order of magnitude. [11] No matter how brief, that experience is stored in our neural homes for motivation and memory — the amygdala and hippocampus. Getting drunk with your friends, getting high on a ski-lift, removing the undergarments of a member of the opposite sex for the first time — all initially flood the brain with dopamine alongside a picture memory of the event chemically linked to the body’s pleasurable response to it. As such we look forward to doing it again, not so much because we want to repeat the activity, but because we want to recreate that ‘feeling’.

But in a modern stimuli-laden culture, this process is easily hijacked. After each upward spike, dopamine levels again recede, eventually to below the baseline. The following spike doesn’t go quite as high as the one before it. Over time, the rush becomes smaller, and the crash that follows becomes steeper. The brain has been fooled into thinking that achieving that high is equivalent to survival and therefore the ‘consume’ light remains on all the time. Eventually, the brain is forced to turn on a self-defence mechanism, reducing the production of dopamine altogether — thus weakening the pleasure circuits’ intended function. At this point, an ‘addicted’ person is compelled to use the substance not to get high, but just to feel normal — since one’s own body is producing little or no endogenous dopamine response. Such a person has reached a state of “anhedonia”, or inability to feel pleasure via normal experiences. Being addicted also raises the risk of having depression; being depressed increases the risk of self-medicating, which then leads to addiction, etc. via positive feedback loops.

In sum, when exposed to novel stimuli, high levels of curiosity (dopamine) are generated, but it is the unexpected reward that causes their activation. If I order a fantastic array of sushi and the waiter brings me a toothpick and my check, I am going to have a plunge in dopamine levels which will create an immediate craving for food. It is this interplay between expected reward and reality that underlies much of our behavioural reactions. Ultimately, as it relates to resource consumption, repeated use of any dopamine-generating ‘activity’ eventually results in tolerance. Withdrawal results in lower levels of dopamine and continuous use is required to keep dopamine at normal levels, and even higher doses to get the ‘high’ levels of initial use. Consumers in rich nations are arguably reaching higher and higher levels of consumption tolerance. If there was such a thing as ‘cultural anhedonia’, we might be approaching it.

America and addiction

It would be pretty hard to be addicted directly to oil; it’s toxic, slimy and tastes really bad. But given the above background, we can see how it is possible to become addicted to the energy services that oil provides. Humans are naturally geared for individual survival — curious, reward-driven and self-absorbed —but modern technology has now become a vector for these cravings. Material wealth and the abundant choices available in contemporary US society are unique in human (or animal) experience; never before in the history of our species have so many enjoyed (used?) so much. Within a culture promoting ‘more’, it is no wonder we have so many addicts. High-density energy and human ingenuity have removed the natural constraints on our behaviour of distance, time, oceans and mountains. For now, these phenomena are largely confined to developed nations — people living in a hut in Botswana or a yurt in Mongolia cannot as easily be exposed to the ‘hijacking stimuli’ of an average westerner, especially one living in a big city in the West, like London or Los Angeles.

Many activities in an energy-rich society unintentionally target the difference between expected and unexpected reward. Take sportfishing for example. If my brother and I are on a lake fishing and we get a bite, it sends a surge of excitement through our bodies — what kind of fish is it? How big is it? etc. We land an 8-inch perch! Great! A minute later we catch another 8 inch perch — wow, there must be a school! After 45 minutes of catching nothing but 8-inch perch, our brain comes to expect this outcome, and we need something bigger, or a different species, to generate the same level of excitement, so we will likely move to a different part of the lake in search of ‘bigger’ and/or ‘different’ fish. (Though my brother claims he would never tire of catching fish 8-inch perch I think he’s exaggerating). Recreational fishing is benign (if not to the fish), but one can visualise other more resource-intensive pastimes activating similar circuitry. New shoes, new cars, new vacations, new home improvements, new girlfriends are all present on the modern unexpected reward smorgasbord.

The habituation process explains how some initially benign activities can morph into things more destructive. Weekly church bingo escalates to $50 blackjack tables; the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition results, several years down the road, in the monthly delivery (in unmarked brown packaging) of Jugs magazine or webcams locked in on a bedroom in Eastern Europe; youthful rides on a rollercoaster evolve into annual heli-skiing trips, etc. The World Wide Web is especially capable of hijacking our neural reward pathways. The 24/7 ubiquity and nearly unlimited options for distraction on the internet almost seem to be perfectly designed to hone in on our brains’ g-spot. Shopping, pornography, gambling, social networking, information searches, etc. easily out-compete the non-virtual, more mundane (and necessary) activities of yesteryear. Repetitive internet use can be highly addictive, though psychiatrists in different countries are debating whether it is a true addiction. For better or worse, the first things I do in the morning is a) check what time it is, b) start the coffee machine then c) check my e-mail, to see what ‘novelty’ might be in my inbox. Bills to pay, and e-mails from people who are not important or interesting, wait until later in the day, or are forgotten altogether.

There are few healthy men on the planet today who do not respond in social settings to the attention of a high-status, attractive 20- to 30-something woman. This is salient stimuli, irrespective of the man’s marital status. But here is one example of where nature and nurture mesh. Despite the fact that 99+% of our history was polygynous, modern culture precludes men from running around pell-mell chasing women; we have rules, laws, and institutions such as marriage. However, habituation to various matrimonial aspects combined with exposure to dozens or even hundreds of alternatives annually in the jet age may at least partially explain the 60%+ divorce rate in modern society.

The entire brain and behaviour story is far more complex than just one neurotransmitter but the pursuit of this particular ‘substance’ is clearly correlated with anxiety, obesity, and the general increasing of conspicuous consumption in our society. That dopamine is directly involved is pretty clear. Parkinson’s Disease is a condition where dopamine is lacking in an area of the brain necessary for motor coordination. The drug, Mirapex, increases dopamine levels in that area of the brain, but since pills are not lasers, it also increases dopamine in other areas of the body, including (surprise) the reward pathways. There are numerous lawsuits currently pending by Parkinson’s patients who after taking the drug, developed sex, gambling, shopping and overeating compulsions. [12]

Our brain can also be tricked by the food choices prevalent in an abundant-energy society. We evolved in situations where salt and sugar were rare and lacking and signaled nutrition. So now, when we taste Doritos or Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, our reward pathways say ‘yes yes — this is good for you!!’ Our ‘rational’ brain attempts to remind us of the science showing obesity comes from eating too much of the wrong type of foods, but often loses out to the desire of the moment. Fully 30% of Americans are now categorised as obese. And, since we are exporting our culture (via the global market system) to developing countries, it is no surprise that China is following in our footsteps. From 1991 to 2004 the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese in China increased from 12.9% to 27.3%. [13] Furthermore, we can become habituated to repeated presentation of the same food type; we quickly get tired of it and crave something different. [14] We like variety — in food and in other things. Finally, when we overstimulate the brain pleasure centres with highly palatable food, these systems adapt by decreasing their own activity. Many of us now require constant stimulation from palatable (fatty) food to avoid entering a persistent state of negative reward. It is this dynamic that has led scientists to recently declare that fatty foods such as cheesecake and bacon are addictive in the same manner as cocaine. [15] And as we shall see, both what we eat and experience not only alters our own health, but also makes it more difficult to act in environmentally benign ways.

Impulsivity, discount rates and preparing for the future

Overconsumption fueled by increasing neural high water marks is a problem enough in itself, but such widespread neural habituation also diminishes our ability to think and act about the coming societal transition away from fossil fuels. Economists measure how much we prefer the present over the future via something called a ‘discount rate’. (See Mark Rutledge’s essay in this book). A discount rate of 100% means we prefer the present completely and put no value on the future. A discount rate of 0% means we treat the future 1000 years from now equally the same as 5 minutes from now.

Certain types of people have steeper discount rates than others; in general, gamblers, drinkers, drug users, men (vs. women), low IQ scorers, risk-takers, those exhibiting cognitive load, etc. all tend to show more preference for small short-term rewards rather than waiting for larger, long-term ones. [16] On average, heroin addicts’ discount rates are over double those of control groups. Furthermore, in tests measuring discount rates and preferences among opium addicts, opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed monetary rewards significantly more than did non-drug using controls. Also, the opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed opium significantly more than delayed money, more evidence that brain chemicals are central to an organism’s behaviour and that money and other abstractions are secondary. [17] Research has also shown that subjects deprived of addictive substances have an even greater preference for immediate consumption over delayed gratification. [18]

Even if we are not snorting cocaine or binge drinking on a Tuesday night, in a world with so much choice and so many stimulating options vying for our attention, more and more of our time is taken up feeding neural compulsions. In any case, facing large long-term risks like peak oil and climate change requires dedicated long-term thinking — so having neural wiring that, due to cultural stimuli, focuses more and more on the present instead, is a big problem.

The fallacy of reversibility A.K.A “The ratchet effect”

Though our natural tendency is to want more of culturally condoned pursuits, many such desires do have negative feedbacks. For instance, I can only eat about three cheeseburgers before my stomach sends a signal to my brain that I am full — and at 4 or 5 my stomach and esophagus would fill to the level I couldn’t physically eat another. However, this is not so with virtual wealth, or many of the “wanting” stimuli promoted in our economic ‘more equals better’ culture. Professor Juliet Schor of Boston University has demonstrated that irrespective of their baseline salary, Americans always say they’d like to make a little more the following year. [19] Similar research by UCLA economist Richard Easterlin (whose “Easterlin Paradox” points out that average happiness has remained constant over time despite sharp rises in GDP per capita.) followed a cohort of people over a 16-year period. The participants were asked at the onset to list 10 items that they desired (e.g. sports car, snowmobile, house, private jet, etc.) During the 16 study, all age groups tested did acquire some/many of the things they originally desired. But in each case, their desires increased more than their acquisitions. [20] This phenomenon is termed the “Hedonic Treadmill”. I believe this behaviour is at the heart of the Limits to Growth problem, and gives me less confidence that we are just going to collectively ‘tighten our belts’ when the events accompanying resource depletion get a little tougher. That is, unless we somehow change what it is that we want more of.

The Ratchet Effect is a term for a situation in which, once a certain level is reached, there is no going back, at least not all the way. In evolution the effect means once a suite of genes become ubiquitous in a population, there is no easy way to ‘unevolve’ it. A modern example of this is obesity — as we get fatter the body creates more lipocytes (cells composing adipose tissue). But this system doesn’t work in reverse; even though we can lose some of the weight gain, the body can’t eliminate these new cells — they are there to stay.

After peak oil/peak credit, the ratchet effect is likely to mean that any rules requiring a more equitable distribution of wealth will not be well received by those who amassed wealth and status when oil was abundant. In biology, we see that animals will expend more energy defending freshly gained territory than they would to gain it if it was unclaimed. In humans, the pain from losing money is greater than the pleasure of gaining it. Economists describe and quantify this phenomenon as the endowment effect and loss aversion. And, as an interesting but disturbing aside, recent research suggests that the dopamine that males receive during acts of aggression rivals that of food or sex. [20] [21] All these different dynamics of ‘what we have’ and ‘what we are used to’ will come into play in a world with less resources available per head.

Old brain, new choices

Humans have always lived in the moment but our gradual habituation to substances and activities that hijack our reward system may be forcing us, in aggregate, to live so much for the present that we are ignoring the necessity for urgent societal change. Unwinding this cultural behaviour may prove difficult. The sensations we seek in the modern world are not only available and cheap, but most are legal, and the vast majority are actually condoned and promoted by our culture. If the rush we get from an accomplishment is tied to something that society rewards we call it ambition, if it is attached to something a little scary, then we label the individual a ‘risk taker’ and if it is tied to something illegal — only then have we become an ‘addict’ or substance abuser. So it seems culture has voted on which ways of engaging our evolutionarily derived neurotransmitter cocktails are ‘good’ to pursue.

Drug addiction is defined as “the compulsive seeking and taking of a drug despite adverse consequences”. If we substitute the word ‘resource’ for ‘drug’, have we meaningfully violated or changed this definition? That depends on the definition of ‘drug’. “A substance that a person chemically comes to rely upon” is the standard definition but ultimately it is any activity or substance that generates brain chemicals that we come to require/need. Thus, it is not crude oil’s intrinsic qualities we crave but the biochemical sensations to which we have become accustomed arising from the use of its embodied energy.

Take stock trading for example. Neuroscience scans show that stock trading lights up the same brain areas as picking nuts and berries do in other primates.

I think people trade for

  1. money/profit (to compete/move up the mating ladder),
  2. the feeling of being ‘right’ (whether they ever spend the money or not) and
  3. the excitement/dopamine they get from the unexpected nature of the market puzzle.

While these three are not mutually exclusive, it is not clear to me which objective dominates, especially among people who have already attained infinite wealth. (Technically, infinite wealth is their annual expenses divided by the interest rate on Treasury bills. This gives the sum of money that would provide them with an income to buy all they want forever). When I worked for Lehman Brothers, my billionaire clients seemed less ‘happy’ on average than the $30k-a-year clerks processing their trades. They had more exciting lives perhaps, but they were not happier; that is, their reward baseline reset to zero each morning irrespective of the financial wealth they had amassed in previous days or years,. They wanted ‘more’ because they were habituated to getting more — it was how they kept score. Clearly, unless you inherit, you don’t get to be a billionaire if you are easily satisfied.

MRI scans show that objects associated with wealth and social dominance activate reward-related brain areas. In one study, people’s anterior cingulate (a brain region linked to reward) had more blood and oxygen response to visual cues of sports cars than to limousines or small cars. [22]

If compulsive shopping was a rational process, and our choices were influenced only by need, then brand-name t-shirts would sell no better than less expensive shirts of equal quality. The truth is that many shopping decisions are biased by corporate advertising campaigns or distorted by a desire to satisfy some competitive urge or emotional need. For most of us, the peak ‘neurotransmitter cocktail’ is the moment we decide to buy that new ‘item’. After a brief euphoria and a short respite, the clock starts ticking on the next craving/purchase.

Adaptation executors

There is a shared mythology in America that we can each enjoy fame and opulence at the top of the social pyramid. 78% of Americans still believe that anybody in America can become rich and live the good life [23]. Although in our economic system, not everyone can be a Warren Buffet or Richard Branson — there are not enough resources — it is the carrot of potential reward that keeps people working 50 hours a week until they retire at 65. All cannot be first. All cannot be wealthy, which makes our current version of capitalism, given the finite resources of the planet, not dissimilar from a Ponzi scheme.

Envy for status is a strong motivator. Increasing evidence in the fields of psychology and economics shows that above a minimum threshold of income/wealth, it’s one’s relative wealth that matters, not absolute. In an analysis of more than 80,000 observations, the relative rank of an individual’s income predicted the individual’s general life satisfaction whereas absolute income and reference income had little to no effect. [24] The “aspiration gap” is economic-speak for the relative fitness/status drive towards who/what is at the top of the cultural status hierarchy. For decades (centuries?), China has had a moderate aspiration gap, but since the turbo-capitalist global cues have spread across Asia, hundreds of millions of Chinese have raised their pecuniary wealth targets.

Economist Robert Frank asked people in the US if they would prefer living in a 4,000-square-foot house where all the neighboring houses were 6,000 square feet or a 3,000-square-foot house where the surrounding houses were 2,000 square feet. The majority of people chose the latter — smaller in absolute terms but bigger in relative size. A friend of mine says that when he last visited Madagascar, the 5th poorest nation on earth, the villagers huddled around the one TV in the village watching the nation’s most popular TV show Melrose Place, giving them a window of desire into Hollywood glitz and glamour, and a beacon to dream about and strive for. Recently, a prince in the royal family of U.A.E. paid $14 million for a licence plate with the single numeral “1”. “I bought it because I want to be the best in the world”, Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri explained. What environmental cues do the kids watching TV in the U.A.E. or the U.S. receive?

As a species, we are both cooperative and competitive depending on the circumstances, but it’s very important to understand that our neurophysiological scaffolding was assembled during long mundane periods of privation in the ancestral environment. This is still not integrated into the Standard Social Science Model that forms the basis of most liberal arts educations (and economic theory). A new academic study on relative income as a primary driver of life satisfaction had over 50 references, none of which linked to the biological literature on status, sexual selection or relative fitness. Furthermore, increasing cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology research illustrates that we are not the self-interested ‘utility maximisers’ that economists claim, but are highly ‘other regarding’ — we care about other people’s welfare as well as our own. Though high-perceived relative fitness is a powerful behavioural carrot, inequality has pernicious effects on societies; it erodes trust, increases anxiety and illness, and leads to excessive consumption. [25] Health steadily worsens as one descends the social ladder, even within the upper and middle classes [26].

When a child is born, he has all the genetic material he will ever have. All his ancestors until that moment had their neural wiring shaped for fitness maximisation — but when he is born, his genes will interact with environment cues showing those ways to compete for status, respect, mating prospects, and resources etc. which are socially acceptable. From this point forward, the genes are ‘fixed’ and the infant goes through life as an ‘adaptation executor’ NOT a fitness maximiser. What will a child born in the 21st century ‘learn’ to compete for? Historically, we have always pursued social status, though status has been measured in dramatically different ways throughout history. Currently, most people pursue money as a short-cut fitness marker, though some compete in other ways — politics, knowledge, etc. Thus, a large looming problem is that the Chinese and other rapidly developing nations don’t just aspire to the wealth of average Americans — they want to go the whole hog to be millionaires.


We are a clever, ambitious species that evolved to live almost entirely off of solar flows. Eventually we worked out how to access stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels which required very little energy/natural resource input to extract. The population and growth trajectory that ensued eventually oversatisfied the “more is better” mantra of evolution and we’ve now developed a habit of requiring more fossil fuels and more clever ways to use them every year. There also exists a pervasive belief that human ingenuity will create unlimited substitutes for finite natural resources like oil and water. Put simply, it is likely that our abundant natural resources are not only required, but will be taken for granted until they are gone.

This essay has explored some of the underlying drivers of resource depletion and planetary consumption: more humans competing for more stuff that has more novelty. The self-ambition and curiosity that Adam Smith hailed as the twin engines of economic growth have been quite effective over the past 200 years. But Adam Smith did caution in Moral Sentiments that human envy and a tendency toward compulsions, if left unchecked, would undermine the empathic social relationships that would be essential to the successful long-term operation of free markets. Amidst so much novel choice and pressure to create wealth, we are discovering some uncomfortable facts, backed up by modern neurobiology, that confirm his concerns. In an era of material affluence, when wants have not yet been fully constrained by limited resources, the evidence from our ongoing American experiment conclusively shows that humans have trouble setting limits on our instinctual cravings. What’s more, our rational brains have quite a hard time acknowledging this uncomfortable but glaring fact.

This essay undoubtedly raises more questions than it answers. If we can be neurally hijacked, what does it suggest about television, advertising, media, etc? The majority of the neuro-economic sources I used in writing this were a byproduct of studies funded by neuromarketing research! How does ‘rational utility’ function in a society where we are being expertly marketed to pull our evolutionary triggers to funnel the money upwards? How does Pareto optimality — the assumption that all parties to an exchange will be made better off — hold up when considering neuro-economic findings? Recent studies show that American young people (between ages of 8-18) use 7.5 hours of electronic media (internet, Ipod, Wii, etc) per day and, thanks to multi-tasking, had a total of 11 hours ‘gadget’ exposure per day! [27] The children with the highest hours of use had markedly poorer grades and more behavioural problems. How will these stimuli-habituated children adapt to a world of fewer resources?

Not all people pursue money, but our cultural system does. An unbridled pursuit of profits has created huge disparities in digitally amassed monetary wealth both within and between nations, thus holding a perpetually unattainable carrot in front of most of the world’s population. So it is not just the amount we consume that is unsustainable, but also the message we send to others, internationally, nationally and in our neighbourhoods.

Meeting in the middle? The arrowed circle on this Inglehart Curve represents the highest level of well-being/survival consistent with a low level of resource use. It is therefore a target at which a society should aim. (Source: N. Hagens and R. Inglehart 1997)

At the same time, traditional land, labour and capital inputs have been subsidised by the ubiquity of cheap energy inputs, and more recently by a large increase in both government and private debt, a spatial and temporal reallocator of resources. These cheap energy/cheap credit drivers will soon be a thing of the past, and this will curtail future global growth aspirations. When this happens, and we face the possibility of currency reform and what it might mean to start afresh with the same resources but a new basket of claims and assumptions, we will need to remember the neural backdrops of competition for relative status, and how people become habituated to high neural stimuli. Perhaps, given the suppl- side limits and neural aspirations, some new goals can be attempted at lower absolute levels of consumption by at least partially lowering the amplitude of social rank.

We cannot easily change our penchant to want more. We can only change cultural cues on how we define the ‘more’ and thereby reduce resource use. In the cross-cultural study referenced in the diagram above, we can see that well-being increases only slightly as GNP increases above some minimum threshold. The arrowed circle would be a logical place for international policymakers concerned about planetary resource and sink capacity to aim to reach via taxes, disincentives to conspicuous consumption and subsidies. However, I fear that nations and governments will do little to slow their consumption and will get increasingly locked into defending the status quo instead.

In a society with significant overall surpluses, people who actively lower their own economic and ecological footprint might get by very well because their relative status — which is typically above average — allows them to make such reductions without reaching limits that compromise their well-being. As these people allocate time and resources away from financial marker capital and towards social, human, built and natural capital, they have an opportunity to redefine what sort of ‘wealth’ we compete for and thus potentially lead by example. However, personal experience with people in the lifestyle section of the chart leads me to believe that they will probably continue to pursue more resources and status even if it doesn’t improve their well-being.

Put aside peak oil and climate change for the moment. Though it is difficult, we have it in us as individuals and as a culture to make small changes to the way our brains get ‘hijacked’ and, as a result, achieve more benign consequences. For example, we can choose to go for a jog/hike instead of sending ten emails and websurfing, we can choose to have a salad instead of a cheeseburger, we can choose to play a game or read a story with our children instead of making business phone calls. But most of these types of choices require both prior planning and discipline if our brains are not to fall into the neural grooves that modern culture has created. It takes conscious plans to change these behaviours, and for some this will be harder than for others But in choosing to do so, besides slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop, we are likely to make ourselves healthier and happier. In neuro-speak, many of the answers facing a resource-constrained global society involve the rational neo-cortex suppressing and overriding the primitive and stronger limbic impulses.

So, ultimately, we must start to address new questions. In addition to asking source/sink questions like ‘how much do we have’ we should begin asking questions like ‘how much is enough?’ Reducing our addictive behaviours collectively will make it easier to face the situations likely to arise during an energy descent. Changing the environmental cues on what we compete for, via taxes or new social values, will slow down resource throughput and give future policymakers time to forge a new economic system consistent with our evolutionary heritage and natural resource balance sheet. We will always seek status and have hierarchies in human society but unless we first understand and then integrate our various demand-side constraints into our policies, culture and institutions, sustainability will be another receding horizon. Though there is probably no blanket policy to solve our resource crisis that would both work and gain social approval, an understanding of the main points of this essay might be a springboard to improve one’s own happiness and well-being. Which would be a start…


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Should the United States try to avoid a financial meltdown?

Appendix to the US edition of Fleeing Vesuvius.

Many Americans believe that the US cannot avoid hyperinflation or a catastrophic financial crash. Tom Konrad‘s position is slightly different. He thinks that while a crash is possible, the system is more likely to end with a whimper rather than a bang and that any progress towards building a more sustainable society will be undermined unless the country undergoes significant cultural change. With the confidence that comes from living on the other side of the Atlantic, however, Richard Douthwaite thinks he’s wrong and that, in Fleeing Vesuvius terms, what he’s saying amounts to “let’s allow this flow of lava to pass over us. Some of our institutions will be burned up and lots of people will have a bad time but, after it’s over, we can rebuild in a more sustainable way”. Here’s how the debate between them went:

Richard Douthwaite

I think we agree, Tom, that the United States is trapped in a downward spiral, blocked on one side of its balance sheet by insupportable debts and on the other by unsustainable asset values. When the spiral was running upwards, almost everyone was delighted because the value of their houses and other assets was increasing and enabling them to live well by borrowing more. The increased borrowings injected additional purchasing power into the economy. This increased the price people were able to pay for assets – which, of course, they bought with borrowed money. It was a wonderful flight from reality while it lasted.

But in 2007 and 2008, when the high energy and commodity prices generated by a global boom pushed up the cost of necessities and left the weakest borrowers with too little money to service their debts, many of those flying on borrowed wings came crashed to. down. The sub-prime mortgage crisis set the spiral turning in the other direction, pulling everything down rather than pushing it up.

In this new environment, no-one wishes to borrow to buy assets since their prices are still falling. People are fearful about their financial future and have cut their spending, increased their saving and are trying hard to pay back their loans. This has given the downward spiral an extra twist as the lack of demand has cut national income and increased unemployment, sucking even more families into the debt trap.

The imbalance between asset values and incomes has widened the gap between rich and poor. The US is one of the most unequal countries in the world and the richest 1% of the population enjoy almost 24% of the nation’s income, up from only 9% in 1976. This was the reason for the death of the American Dream. More than 80% of the increase in national income generated by economic growth between 1980 and 2005 went to this group. The heads of companies did particularly well. They earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001.

This imbalance is closely linked to the imbalance between asset values and GDP. Whenever the top 1% get a further increase in income, they spend very little of it on American-made goods and services – in other words, in ways which create many jobs for other people. Most is invested in assets and has the effect of driving their prices up or at least limiting further falls.

If conventional policies continue to be followed, the gap between rich and poor makes it very difficult to see how the US economy can avoid a continuing decline, still less how it can ever “recover”. Any pick-up in the economy can only come from a pick-up in demand for US goods and services but the rich aren’t going to consume any more, the poor can’t afford to and the various levels of government are overborrowed as it is. The federal government’s deficit in 2010 was expected to be over 10% and many local governments have had to make extremely painful cuts. The only possible conventional source of extra demand is an increase in exports but that’s going to be difficult to achieve as the manufacturing base has been badly eroded by free trade policies and there is huge competition from the rest of the world.

What all this says to me is that an unconventional policy is needed that gets money into ordinary people’s hands without asking anyone to take on any more debt. Would you agree?

Tom Konrad

While I agree with your assessment of the situation, I disagree about the proper goal for a long term shift to a sustainable economy. A sustainable economy operates at a much lower level of economic activity and its primary driver of economic activity is not consumer spending. America’s problem is cultural as well as economic. We have an unsustainable culture, where status is equated with material wealth. The race to acquire more material wealth is in its essence unsustainable. The death of the American Dream of universal home ownership is not just a product of inequality: Universal home ownership leads to sprawl, and is incompatible with a sustainable society.

Our most important task is to bring our culture back to one much more like that of our founding fathers, where industry and hard work are the source of status, instead of the possession of material wealth. Benjamin Franklin used to fetch the paper for his printing shop in a wheelbarrow with an intentionally squeeky wheel. His intent was to call attention to the fact that he did this manual labor for himself, raising his reputation as an hard worker. Today, such manual labor is more likely to be seen as a badge of shame, and fit only for immigrants. Our debt-fueled society has led Americans to believe that we are entitled to everything we want, including the luxury of not working for it.

Putting money into people’s hands without requiring anything in return will simply reinforce America’s unsustainable culture. Instead, current debts should only be absolved through the arduous process of bankruptcy. Social inequity should be addressed through high taxes on inheritance and programs such as the Earned Income Tax credit, while the income tax and Social Security payments (which reduce the rewards of work) should be replaced with a large and meaningful carbon tax on energy, including the embodied carbon of imported goods.

These tax changes should help reward sustainable industry, and reduce the incentives to live the lavish, unsustainable lifestyles to which Americans have come to believe we are entitled.

Richard Douthwaite

What you are saying, Tom, is that before the people of the United States can rediscover the virtues of thrift and hard work, they need to pass through the fires of Vesuvius in order to be cleansed of their false consumerist values. My view is that there is a better, surer way to achieve this result. The hundreds of thousands of corporate and personal bankruptcies you envisage would destroy incomes, savings, pensions and asset values. People would become fearful, bitter and possibly violent as a result. They would look around for scapegoats (the Jews, perhaps?) or turn to crime.

Consequently, I just can’t see a period of financial turmoil creating a good basis for building a better society. A worse one seems much more probable as extremist leaders are likely to emerge in response to mass unemployment and the rich could well use force to protect themselves and their lifestyle. The positive things you want like a carbon tax would be much harder to introduce (“What, you want to tax the energy that makes me so productive?”) and Dan Sullivan’s land-value tax ideas was would be rejected outright because people would realise that such a tax would prevent their property values from ever recovering to whatever they were at their peak.

The choice before the US is either to increase incomes by enough to support the current level of debts and asset values, or to write down debts and asset values until they correspond with current income levels. In essence, I’m proposing increasing incomes by enabling more people to work while you, although not exactly wanting a massive deflation, think that one is necessary and would ultimately prove beneficial.

The main reason you seem to reject my job creation route is that it would involve giving everyone some money “for nothing” for a few years while enough jobs were being created to raise the national income by enough to enable it to support the country’s massive public and private sector debts. Let’s go through my proposal carefully to see if your objections really hold.

In November 2010 the Federal Reserve said that the recovery was “disappointingly slow” and it would inject money it had created out of nothing into the economy by buying $600bn-worth of long-term Treasury bonds from their holders before July 2011. As it had already announced it would buy $250bn to $300bn worth of bonds over that period, the announcement meant that between December 2010 and June 2011, the Fed will be handing over about $3,000 for every person resident in the United State to investors in exchange for their bonds. It hopes that the investors will spend the money in ways which boost the economy but it seems unlikely that they will.

Instead of the $3,000 per head being passed to investors, I would like to see some of it being given as a gift to state and county governments so that they can restore local services and rehire the folk they have sacked. I would like the remainder to go on an equal per capita basis to every US resident in a form which prevented them from using it in any other way than to pay down their loans. This would strengthen the banking system, People with no debt would be required to invest it in, say, community facilities or the transition to renewable energy.

It would not be necessary to give this money away for nothing. It could be part of a package involving, say, the introduction of a carbon tax although Peter Barnes’ Cap and Dividend, the US equivalent of Feasta’s Cap and Share, would be much better. This puts up the price of fossil fuel according to its carbon content but returns every cent to the public. Everyone gets the same amount, so those people who use less than the average amount of fuel come out better off. What do you think? Would enabling people to clear their debts for three or four years while jobs were being re-created and the financial system was being restored to balance really be demoralizing?

Tom Konrad

Bankruptcy replaces unsupportable debt with debt which is (barely) supportable. The losses are borne by the lenders foolish enough to extend unsupportable credit. Inflation destroys incomes and asset values by cheapening them, and the losses are borne by savers who have tried to do all the right things to prepare for their futures.

I certainly see your “solution” would feel much better in the short term but I don’t see how it will do anything to help with the cultural problems I think are the root cause of our current and future crises. Americans are not going to scale back their lifestyles (a must in a sustainable world) without some pain. As long as we pursue strategies that avoid pain, no lessons will be learned and we will simply be setting the stage for the next crisis.

I agree my solutions are not politically feasible, while yours are fairly close to the current policies of deficit spending and quantitative easing (printing money.) Americans are not ready for the necessary painful adjustments, and they would no doubt look around for someone to blame besides themselves.

Just because we’re not ready for it does not mean it’s not the right thing to do.

Richard Douthwaite

I don’t think we can avoid pain whatever we do. As Chris Vernon’s article shows, fossil energy supplies are likely to contract very rapidly over the next 40 years. The economy will contract with them, turning everyone’s lives upside down. That will be very painful. My proposal is an attempt to minimise the pain by ensuring that we have a functioning monetary system to help us through a wrenching transition to a low-carbon economy. What’s your alternative strategy to get families and communities through the next forty years? Can you protect savers whose money has been invested in activities which are based on cheap energy from taking hefty losses? I can’t, but an inflation would mean their losses were gradual rather than near-total and overnight.

Tom Konrad

I believe that your course is a well-intentioned attempt to treat symptoms but may actually worsen the disease, and you believe that my course may kill the patient.

I agree the proper goal is to minimize the pain of the transition to a low carbon economy, but I believe much of that pain is necessary to avoid future bubbles caused by excess stimulus in the face of declining energy supplies. A root cause of the last (housing and debt) bubble was the Fed’s stimulus in response to the dot-com crash, with the money driving up asset values to unsustainable levels. Too much stimulus now, whether it takes the form of giving money directly to households or the Federal Reserve buying Treasury bonds will simply lead to new bubbles and new crises.

In order to reduce the pain today, we should focus on enabling debt renegotiation in the place of bankruptcies. Yet the remaining debt not only needs to be supportable on the reduced incomes that come with lower economic activity, it needs to be large enough that Americans do not just learn the lesson that we can borrow as much as we want and there will be no consequences.

Savers who invested in cheap-energy supporting businesses, like heavy debtors, should take losses. They also have a lesson to learn, and that lesson is that investments in sustainable businesses are sustainable assets, while investments in unsustainable businesses will decline. Investors who invested in sustainable businesses such as energy efficiency, resource conservation, alternative transportation, and sustainable agriculture, are already doing their part to shift our economy in a more sustainable direction, and the fruits of their wise investing should not be appropriated through inflation.

Investors have ways to protect themselves from inflation (by buying commodities or inflation-indexed bonds, for instance) or from declining energy supplies (by buying the securities that are aiding the transition.) If investors must protect themselves against inflation as well, they will have fewer resources (both financial and mental) to dedicate to the transition to a sustainable economy.

Just as the attitudes of ordinary households are important in helping them adjust to a sustainable economy which is not based on debt-fueled consumerism, the attitudes of investors are important in deploying the capital we need for the transition. Cultural attitudes are not changed by pretty speeches; cultural attitudes are formed by real world experiences.

The only way I see to change the American culture to one that is compatible with a sustainable economy is to make both households and investors who have lived and invested unsustainably bear much of the consequences of their actions.

Yes, we must let the lava of Vesuvius wash over us, because it will wash over the most unsustainable parts of our economy and culture. We should not build dams in a vain attempt to stop the lava, especially when those dams are piled on the foundations of a sustainable future economy.

Preface by Richard Heinberg (North American edition)

“What a goldmine!” That was my first reaction upon digging into the contents of this book. Others might have said something more along the lines of, “Oh my God! I had no idea our predicament was this terrible! What a pit we are in!” My rather gleeful response was due to the fact that I happen to be in the midst of researching and writing a book exploring the evident fact that resource depletion, debt overhang, and climate change have brought about the end of world economic growth (as currently defined). When I drilled into Fleeing Vesuvius, I encountered a rich vein of thought very much attuned with my own, one that includes stimulating ideas and examples that were new and helpful to me.

While other readers may come to this book with backgrounds different from mine, I think they will nevertheless find just as much stimulation and help as I did.

The authors have applied themselves to an analysis of the most important and fateful economic transition in human history. They are among the People who are Paying Attention (PPA) — an almost completely unorganized demographic consisting of individuals who have the privilege to devote a substantial amount of time to following world political, economic, and environmental news, but who are not blinded by any fixed religious or political ideology. PPA probably number globally no more than a few million, and (if I may speak for them) have generally come to the conclusion that the world is facing a triple crisis:

  1. The depletion of important resources including fossil fuels and minerals;
  2. . The proliferation of environmental impacts, principally climate change arising from both the extraction and use of resources (including the burning of fossil fuels) — leading to snowballing costs from both these impacts themselves and from efforts to avert them; and

  3. Financial disruptions due to the inability of our existing monetary, banking, and investment systems to adjust to both resource scarcity and soaring environmental costs — and their inability (in the context of a shrinking economy) to service the enormous piles of government and private debt that have been generated over the past couple of decades.

While these three crises are converging on us, our leaders remain obsessed with one thing, and one thing only: the maintenance of economic expansion. For a variety of reasons, growth has become essential to the political well-being of modern societies. Yet our fixation on economic growth prevents our addressing any of the three crises: Governments refuse to curtail greenhouse gas emissions (and thus fossil fuel consumption) because doing so would reduce growth. They refuse to reduce their vulnerability to oil supply shocks because that would require them to proactively rein in oil use, thus threatening growth. And they refuse to explore fundamental changes to financial and monetary systems that would make their economies less susceptible to bubbles and crashes because…well, you can finish the sentence.

On the other hand, however, each of these three crises is threatening the continuation of growth. And not just threatening it; I for one would argue that, combined, they have effectively killed off growth once and for all: while we have seen some relative growth since 2008 (some months have seen increased economic activity as compared to others and some nations are still expanding as others swoon), over all the global economy is stalled and headed into a tailspin. We can’t address the problems that threaten economic growth because to do so would threaten economic growth.

A metaphor comes to mind: the spider monkey trap allegedly developed by tribes in South America, consisting of a staked container with a hole cut into it just wide enough for a monkey to insert its empty hand. The container is baited with banana or nuts. Monkey reaches for bait but cannot pull its fist through the hole while clutching its prize. Monkey is not smart enough to let go of bait and is thereby captured. Substitute “economic growth” for “bait” and “economic-environmental collapse” for “capture” and you have a fair picture of our human dilemma circa 2011.

The bitter irony is that we can’t maintain continuous economic growth on a finite planet in any case. Resources are limited, and substitution and efficiency (economists’ magic genies invoked to explain away the inevitable problems of depletion and pollution) are subject to the law of diminishing returns. But that hasn’t stopped us from wishing for perpetual growth, believing in it, and trying to achieve it. Indeed, we are endeavoring to do the impossible so valiantly and single-mindedly that we are willing to wreck the only planet we have in the process. To hell with future generations! We must increase our GDP today!

To be fair, politicians are just attempting to do what the majority of their constituents demand that they do — produce more jobs and higher returns on investments. And this means growing the economy. The cognitive dissonance is unbearable: we must do something that is actually impossible to do. And so most of us simply give up and go quietly insane, or just stop paying attention.

The People Paying Attention are among the minority who eschew insanity as either a defense or a strategy.

Those among the PPA who happen to be writers or activists of one sort or another have been trying to explain all of this to policy makers for many years, mostly to no avail (one politician who does understand the dilemma is Eamon Ryan, the Irish MP who is a contributor to this book).

Sadly, efforts to address the triple crisis have been put off so long that today an easy escape from the monkey trap is no longer possible. (Warning: abrupt metaphor change immediately ahead!) The tectonic pressure is building and something has to give way. We have set ourselves up for an economic-environmental “correction” that will almost certainly be geological in scope and intensity. We could liken it to an earthquake or volcano of such force that it will likely destroy many of the basic structures of civilization on which we have come to depend.

This book is therefore something of a last warning. It outlines the triple crisis as clearly as can be done. Even more valuably, it points out things we still can do to help our society make the inevitable transition away from a fossil fuel-based, debt-based economy in such a way as to avert the worst of the impacts otherwise in store. And it suggests how to prepare ourselves for whatever seismic events are now unavoidable.

The editors are to be congratulated for assembling essays from contributors who are at the very forefront of efforts to understand and respond to the triple crisis. That’s what makes this a goldmine. But (to burden a short Foreword with yet another metaphor) it is also an essential roadmap — an overview of the routes we can take to escape an eruption that has already begun.

Dig in to this goldmine. Refuse insanity or denial. Escape our monkey trap by letting go of the impossible dream of endlessly growing consumption. Follow the map; flee the volcano. And join with others who are paying attention: let’s save as much of humanity and the natural world as we can.

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

A three-step emergency plan for Ireland

by Richard Douthwaite

STEP 1 Introduce non-debt money

The country is trapped by its debts. Its immediate goal has to be to escape and achieve a much greater degree of financial freedom. The current strategy for doing so relies on running a large surplus of exports over imports for a decade or more and making repayments and meeting the interest charges out of that. In essence, this means earning money which people in other countries have borrowed and using it to decrease Irish borrowings. This is going to be a very difficult trick to pull off even if the global economy grows strongly for the foreseeable future because strong global growth is almost certain to increase Ireland’s energy import costs, thus eroding its export surplus. Moreover, as the growth could also increase the interest rates payable on its debts, the country would be forced to try to run up a descending escalator. Two other possible strategies have a much better chance of success.

1. Collective action within the eurozone

All eurozone countries have debt problems — even Germany’s ten biggest banks were reported in September 2010 to need €105bn in additional capital to buttress their solvency. This common debt problem creates the slim possibility that the European Central Bank will be persuaded by increasing social unrest to create money out of nothing by quantitative easing and, totally abandoning its orthodoxy, to give it to governments in proportion to their populations so that further public spending cuts can be avoided and their national debts reduced. Private debts need to be reduced too so every EU citizen should be given some of the ECB money to reduce their borrowings. People with no debt would be required to invest their gift in ways that would lead to a low-carbon economy — the money would be distributed in such a way that it could not be used directly for consumption spending.

Small, carefully controlled amounts of non-debt money could be injected into the eurozone economy at regular intervals until public and private debt levels had been brought into better balance with public and private incomes. The immediate effect of this quick-and-easy-to-implement approach would be to take pressure off the banks by reducing their lending, thus improving their capital-adequacy ratio. Their bad debts would be reduced and the additional economic activity the new money generated would make it easier for their customers to service their remaining debts. Asset values would cease to fall and may even begin to rise again, thus improving the banks’ security.

The public, which has been angered by the fact that the banks are being bailed out while ordinary families in negative equity have been ignored, would be enthusiastic about their debts being cut. They would regard the scheme as fair as everyone would be being given the same amount of new money. They would also welcome the fact that public services were not being reduced.

It is hard to say what effect injecting money in this way might have on the value of the euro. It might fall initially on inflation fears but recover later when it became clear that the eurozone economy was doing well and the banks and public finances had been stabilised. Any fall in the value of the euro would help with recovery, of course, as it would increase the zone’s competitiveness and mean more internal production for internal use.

2. An internal solution

The collective solution above should be promoted at EU level but, such is the level of monetary conservatism in Germany, it is most unlikely to be adopted and Ireland will almost certainly need to take an independent way out. Its attitude should be that if the ECB will not provide it with debt-free money, it must provide its own and that it is going to launch a currency to run in parallel with the euro. This could be done in the following way.

  • The new currency, the harp, would be announced as an emergency measure. It would be entirely electronic and used only to trade. It would not have any guaranteed exchange rate with the euro although, initially at least, the government would accept it at parity with the euro for the payment of taxes. The commercial banks would be instructed to open harp accounts for each of their customers. Individuals with accounts in more than one bank would be asked to nominate the bank at which they wished to hold their harp account. A quantity of harp would be deposited in each individual’s account to allow him or her to buy goods and services. They would transfer the harp they received to each other and to companies using their mobile phones for small amounts and from their computers or through their banks for larger sums. No harp notes and coins would be issued. This is essential if the currency is to be removed from circulation later on. Their absence also gets around Article 105a of the European Treaty which states that “The ECB shall have the exclusive right to authorise the issue of bank notes within the Community.”
  • Firms would open harp accounts but they would not be given an initial float; they would be expected to earn their harp by supplying the public. It would be up to each company to tell prospective customers which goods and services they were prepared to supply for payment entirely in harp and, if they wanted a mixed currency payment, the price in a combination of euros and harp. Similarly, it would be up to employers and employees to negotiate what proportion of wages could be paid in harp.
  • Harp accounts would not be confidential; the issuing body would have access to them, regardless of the bank that provided them, so that it could manage the system.
  • As the volume of business being done in harp increased, the issuing body would watch the velocity of circulation closely and, once it had crossed a previously announced threshold, it would give more harp into circulation by adding them to the accounts of those who had the highest velocity themselves. However, the harp given to accountholders initially or to enable them to trade more actively later on would not belong to them. Anyone whose velocity fell below a certain level would have a percentage of the harp they had been given removed. This would enable the supply of harp to be kept tight to maintain its value. So, for example, if the euro economy began to pick up and less trading was done in harp, unearned units could be removed from the slowest accounts.

A parallel currency on these lines would attract much less criticism from the European Commission, the ECB and the other member states than a decision to leave the eurozone to revert to a national currency. It would also be much simpler and less disruptive. The government would naturally point out to its partners that if the euro became abundant again and the harp ceased to be used so much, units would be withdrawn. Eventually, it would say, the harp system could wither away entirely because companies would not want to be bothered with keeping their books in two currencies and would stop accepting it. However, if the analysis in this book is correct, such a withering away would be unlikely to happen unless the euro, too, was issued on a non-debt basis.

The introduction of the harp would be very popular with the public. After months of what has been seen as the bailing out of the better-off, the state would be seen as doing something for ordinary people. Anyone with euro debts would immediately find that their problems were eased because, now that they had the harp for some of their expenditure, they could use their euros to keep up payments to their bank. This would immediately cut the banks’ bad debts and thus the risk of the state’s guarantees being called.

The government itself would be able to avoid public spending cuts cuts by paying a proportion of its social welfare and salary costs in harp. Moreover, the extra activity in the economy would increase its tax revenue, reducing the number of harp it had to issue to balance its income and expenditure.

STEP 2 – Restructure the financial system

All banks borrow short and lend long. This means that they are always technically insolvent and only the depositors’ confidence, supplemented where necessary by state guarantees, ensures that they — and the financial system — remain in business. This timing imbalance contributed to the credit crunch when some banks, Northern Rock and Anglo Irish among them, found that they could not replace their short-term borrowings with new ones when the former had to be repaid.

In future, banks should be required to match their periods for which they lend with the periods for which they have borrowed from their depositors. Moreover, bank lending should be limited in term. It should be purely to enable their customers to overcome temporary imbalances in their inflows and outflows. Long-term funding should be handled by new institutions on a different basis, such as equity partnerships.

Step 2 therefore involves getting long-term lending off the banks’ books and onto those of the new funding organisations. This could be achieved if the banks put their property loans into equity partnerships in exchange for shares that they then sold on to private investors and pension funds. This would allow them to climb down from the grotesquely over-exposed property position they built up during the boom. Over 80% of the loans the banks made in 2006 were property related. As a result, 63% of the loans they had outstanding at the end of 2009 were to do with property whereas only 1.8% were to manufacturing industry. up and less trading was done in harp, unearned units could be removed from the slowest accounts.

As it is currently structured, three conditions have to be met simultaneously before the Irish property market can work properly. These are:

  1. potential buyers/lessees have to be confident that property prices and rents are not going to fall, leaving them either in negative equity or paying a fixed rent that makes their business uncompetitive
  2. potential buyers/lessees have to be sufficiently confident about their future incomes to be happy about taking on long-term commitments
  3. long-term finance needs to be available at affordable interest rates.

Conditions 1 and 2 can never be met in a shrinking economy so it is immaterial whether loans would be available or not. With equity partnerships, however, the situation is quite different as no-one gets locked into a long-term rental agreement and declining property prices do not matter because the assets acquired at current prices are never going to be re-sold. All that concerns investors in equity partnerships is the income they get from the rents, and those rents move up and down according to market circumstances. The widespread use of equity partnerships or something similar is therefore essential for a functioning economy in circumstances in which incomes are likely to decline.

STEP 3 – Invest in energy independence

Ireland’s third target should be to achieve energy independence. It should finance this by setting up an agency to sell energy bonds, each of which would entitle the owner to the value of a specific amount of energy at some specified date in the future when the facilities that were built with the capital raised by the bond sales had come onstream. The agency, which would also make a market in the bonds so that holders could sell them before maturity, would work on both community and national level.

Community level

The agency’s community energy division (CE) would be invited by communities to study their potential renewable energy sources and produce a report on how they might be developed and the cost of doing so. If the community decided to go ahead, it would set up a company and CE would act as a consultant to that company. Suppose, for example, the locality had wind, biomass, hydro and animal slurry. CE would work out a way of developing these in combination with each other so that the highest value local energy needs (lighting, vehicle fuel, cooking gas?) were met first and, as far as was possible, whenever there was an electricity flow out of the community, it happened at times of peak demand elsewhere. Equally, if the wind was not blowing and the community had to take in power, the amount taken at peak times would be minimised by putting the biomass-fired CHP plant on full load and running the hydro plant. Smart meters would also help by cutting out low-priority electricity uses temporarily.

An energy bond might be for 10,000 kWh for delivery in December 2015. When it matured, the holder would get whatever the inhabitants of the community were paying for 10,000 kWh at that time. No interest would be paid on the bonds. Instead, those with longer maturity dates would be sold at a lower price than those with shorter ones. potential buyers/lessees have to be confident that property prices and rents are not going to fall, leaving them either in negative equity or paying a fixed rent that makes their business uncompetitive potential buyers/lessees have to be sufficiently confident about their future incomes to be happy about taking on long-term commitments long-term finance needs to be available at affordable interest rates.

Each district would issue bonds to finance its projects but CE would provide a guarantee for them. Its relationship with the community company would therefore have to give it sufficient authority over the management of the projects to ensure that enough power was being produced to generate the income to pay off the bondholders as their bonds matured. CE might, for example, have a management contract. It would charge a fee for its guarantees and for making a market in the bonds. The bonds could be sold anywhere in the world — it would not be necessary for locals to buy them. Equally, it would not be necessary for all the projects which the bonds financed to be in a community’s own area. Some communities would have the potential to carry out big projects and other communities could share in these.

CE would make the arrangements for the electrical component of the community energy company’s output to be fed into the grid. Anyone in the local area who wished to do so could nominate the community company as their electricity supplier and the bill they got from ESB Networks, which would still, of course, read their meters, would be in two parts. One part would be the actual marginal cost to the community company of producing and delivering the units they used. This cost would include the maintenance costs of the wind turbine and the cost of the woodchip for the CHP plant. It would also include the payments for the agency’s services, the cost per unit of using the grid and the charge for top-up and spill, which the design of the system and the smart meters would minimise.

If a kWh cost 15 cents, the actual costs of production and delivery might amount to 5 cents. VAT would be paid on this part of the bill. The rest of bill would be to cover the cost of buying out the bondholders as their bonds matured. This would be a loan repayment and no VAT would be payable on it. Bills for heat or biogas direct from the community company would also be in the two parts.

Two-part bills make the system tax efficient but there is more to them than that. The non-VAT-able part of the bills would be a form of saving for the customer. Each payment a customer made would build up his or her investment in the community company. Once they reached a certain age, however, the savings element would stop and they would only pay the marginal cost for their power. They would also get their capital investment back month by month as a form of pension, paid for by younger customers taking over their stake in the community company.

This savings element would make the system very attractive and the price of electricity from other suppliers would have to be considerably lower than that from the community company for them to be able to compete.

National level

The agency would also stand ready to issue bonds on behalf of the promoters of major projects and to make a market in the bonds it had issued. These bonds would not carry its guarantee, however. Investors would have to rely on the management of the companies concerned, which could always take out performance insurance in the way that film-production companies purchase completion bonds to give comfort to their investors.

The agency’s activities would provide a safe home for Irish savings while at the same time increasing economic activity, much of which would benefit the construction sector. There would be to a rapid acceleration in the pace at which Ireland replaced its imported fossil energy with renewable energy from its own sources.

Preface by Eamon Ryan (Irish edition)

by Eamon Ryan, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Ireland

Managing a retreat is the most difficult of all political tasks. It is always easier to offer something new rather than to try to take back an existing benefit. But when it comes to our use of fossil fuels, which have provided huge benefits to our society, it is now time for an organised retreat.

We need to retreat because the emissions from burning coal and gas threaten the climate system upon which our lives depend. We also need to do so because we face a peak in global oil production and we have to start changing our food and transport systems to cope with the decline in oil supplies that will follow.

I remember Colin Campbell setting out the need for such a retreat at a Feasta conference in Autumn 2002. Like several of the members of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, he spoke with expertise as a former oil exploration geologist but also with a certain independence as he no longer had any vested interest in the oil business.

Rather than relying on the claims from governments and oil companies about their reserves, he was one of the first people to conduct an oil-field by oil- field analysis to try and determine the actual flows of oil we could expect. His analysis estimated a global peak in production in the early part of this decade. Despite a trebling of oil prices in the interim period, global oil production has shown no real growth. New wells, tar sands and gas to liquid production are only managing to replace declines in existing fields. The peak in global oil discoveries occurred in 1963 and, with fewer big fields being discovered each year, the task of covering production declines has become increasingly difficult.

The retreat from over-reliance on oil needs to start two decades in advance of a future decline in production, as this is the half-life of much of our machinery which depends on relatively cheap oil supplies. The power infrastructure we build today will be in place for a lifetime. The cars we buy today will be still on the road in ten years’ time and our air and shipping fleets would take decades to modernise even if we had easy alternatives to these oil-dependent transport systems.

The retreat will have to be organised on a global scale by all the major oil- consuming countries, if we are not to see huge transfers of wealth and political power to the producing countries. Estimates vary about the speed of decline that we can expect but even the more optimistic figures would require us to reduce our demand for conventional oil products by three or four per cent annually to keep below supply limits.

Some will argue that new natural gas supplies will allow us get off this hook. It is true that new shale gas supplies have altered the international gas markets. However, as Dennis Meadows and others showed in the 1972 book The Limits To Growth, the challenge this century will be to avoid breaching one of a number of constraints that come with living on a finite planet. Even if gas is more easily available and even if it has relatively low carbon emissions in comparison to some other fossil fuels, the reality is that simply replacing oil with natural gas will still see us breach the greenhouse gas limits that the best scientific advice says we have to avoid.

After the failure to achieve a global climate agreement in Copenhagen, it is up to individual countries to start showing some leadership and start cutting out the carbon. In Ireland we have the motivation to make that change as we are one of the most imported oil dependent countries in the world. However, we also have the good fortune of being rich in natural resources in wind power, ocean energy and in having a good climate for growing crops which can provide alternative energy supplies. We are also in the right time and place to consider new financial instruments to help make such a switch as we pick up the pieces from our banking crisis.

We have shown that we can change. We are one of the few countries in the world that has put a price on carbon across the economy. At times earlier this year, new renewable wind power supplies were providing some 50% of our electricity. We will be one of the first countries to have a national network of electric vehicle charging points. We are developing real expertise in using new information communication technologies to improve energy efficiency. We are changing our energy utility model to favour the delivery of energy savings in our buildings rather than just selling power supply. However, we are only at the start of the process and it will take consistent effort from our public, political and business system if we are to make the necessary changes.

At a public event recently Richard Douthwaite was asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world in 2050. He replied that he was neither, but would rather adopt the philosophy of a wise man he had met once in India who said that the Bhagavad Gita taught that we should be neither optimistic nor pessimistic but just do the work which God had put before us.

Feasta has been working for the last ten years raising the alarm, looking for fundamental reforms in our money systems and promoting new ideas as to how we can generate and use energy differently. It has been helping to advance the retreat.

Photo by bjearwicke.

Introduction: Where we went wrong

by Richard Douthwaite

This book grew out of a conference in 2009 called the New Emergency. What emergency was that? Most people didn’t think that there was an emergency then and they don’t think there is one now. They know that the world is facing a lot of problems at present but they probably would not elevate any of them even to the status of a crisis, still less an emergency. The world has always had problems, they think, and it always will. Very few of them think that there’s anything going on at present that requires Ireland to mobilise all its resources in the way that it did in response to the old Emergency, the Second World War.

However, once you recognise that most of the worst problems the world faces have a common cause and that time is running out to solve them, you have an emergency. That’s my position. I believe that the “development” path that the world has followed for the past three centuries has led to a dead end and that immediate action is required if humanity is to have any chance of getting on to a more sustainable path. Every day lost makes a satisfactory future less likely for billions of people, both born and yet-to-be-born, because our options are trickling away with our life-blood, natural resources.

That’s the emergency. We need to apply a tourniquet immediately to give us time to take more drastic action. But who is conscious of this? How many people really grasp the severity of the climate crisis? Or the fact that the production of conventional oil has almost certainly peaked and the amount of energy that is going to be available for the world to use is going to shrink rapidly? Or that energy and water shortages are going to curtail the world’s food supply? What proportion of the general public is really worried about the rate at which species are being lost?

True, everyone knows that several countries have problems with debts or with their banking systems (or, like Ireland, with both), and that they, or people they know, are losing their jobs because of them, but they might not elevate these problems to the status of a crisis unless they live in Greece. They think that, in Ireland’s case, these financial problems began when the housing bubble burst and that the burst was somehow linked to the credit crunch that began when worthless securities generated by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US triggered what was, for a time, an international banking crisis. There’s been almost no recognition that resource depletion was the underlying cause of that international banking crisis and there probably won’t be for as long as the conventional wisdom is that the world economy is looking up and the crisis itself has come to an end.

Even at its height, the financial crisis was only an emergency for those responsible for handling it. A country faces an emergency if an enemy is mobilising on its border to invade, or if its people are dying in thousands from a plague. A family faces an emergency if its house is on fire or if one of its members has been hit by a car and needs to be rushed to hospital. An emergency is a period in which everything else is ignored in favour of immediate action.

From time to time, the chronic problems that face the world erupt and cause a minor emergency such as that on the evening in September 2008 when the Irish banks told the government they might be unable to open the following day. When something like that happens, people stay up late, the eruption is dealt with and then life goes on until the next eruption occurs. Few of us think that anything radical has to be done. We assure each other that minor tinkering, like holding an inquiry, beefing up the regulatory system and limiting bankers’ bonuses, will be enough to allow us to carry on living pretty much as we do now for the foreseeable future.

We are ignoring these eruptions in the way the inhabitants of Pompeii ignored the earthquakes which preceded the volcanic blast that destroyed them in 79 AD and which had been doing considerable damage for at least the previous sixteen years. Some of the earthquake-damaged houses were actually under repair at the time Vesuvius erupted, with piles of plaster and tools lying where the workers had left them. Rather than moving out, the Pompeiians wanted to carry on with life as usual. They had every reason to do so. The whole Bay of Naples area was booming and the holiday villas of the rich provided a lot of work. Interestingly, those who dropped everything and fled immediately when ash and pumice started raining down probably survived. However, many thought their best chance was to take shelter. They died when the avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and volcanic gas began.

The common cause of all our crises today is our use of fossil fuel. Just as addictive drugs alter the metabolism of the human body in ways that create dependency and make it difficult to give them up, fossil fuels have profoundly altered the metabolism of economies and societies. As a result, the systems of production and distribution we have now, and the types of relationship we have with other people, including those within our own families, will be changed out of all recognition as the energy drug is withdrawn. The withdrawal period will be particularly painful in countries that fail to ensure that they have a decent supply of renewable energy methadone available to them. Cold turkey will mean that many people die. Thinking of Pompeii, if we leave it too late before we rush towards a new type of civilisation, we will have to leave behind all our high-tech, high-energy tools, and we may not survive without them.

Here are some of the ways in which fossil energy use has perverted our economies and our lives.

  1. It has transformed manufacturing methods by displacing human labour.
  2. It has transformed agricultural methods, replacing human labour, animal power and sunlight.
  3. It has enabled the world population to grow to a level that may well be unsupportable without its use.
  4. It has devalued human labour and led to widespread unemployment.
  5. It has made the economy reliant on economic growth to avoid collapse.
  6. It has enabled extremes of wealth and poverty to develop.
  7. It has led to the development of industrial capitalism.
  8. It has produced profits that had to be recycled. This led to the growth of the banking system and debt-based money.
  9. By fuelling powered transport, it has destroyed self-reliant local economies and the nature of local relationships.

Once fossil energy began to be used, these perversions were inevitable. About seven years ago, I wrote the concluding essay for Before the Wells Run Dry, a book about future energy supplies which emerged from a previous Feasta conference called Ireland’s Transition to Renewable Energy. That conference was the forerunner for a lot of the thinking in Feasta that laid the foundations for the New Emergency event so I’m going to draw rather liberally on what I wrote in 2003. The essay asked where humanity had gone wrong. When did we take a path which, because ‘one path leads to another’ in Robert Frost’s phrase, inexorably led us to becoming totally dependent on a grotesquely unsustainable energy system?

I argued that the wrong turn was taken in England in the 16th Century as the population began to recover from the Black Death. The increased numbers – a rise from 1.6 million to 5.5 million in less than 200 years – naturally put greater pressure on resources and caused communities to have problems living within the limits imposed by their local environments. In 1631, Edmund Howes described how this had forced them to start to burn coal:

Within man’s memory it was held impossible to have any want of wood in England. But …such hath been the great expence of timber of navigation, with infinite increase of building houses, with great expence of wood for household furniture, casks and other vessels not to be numbered, and of carts, wagons and coaches, besides the extreme waste of wood in making iron, burning of bricks and tiles, that at this present, through the great consuming of wood as aforesaid, and the neglect of planting of woods, there is so great scarcity of wood throughout the whole kingdom that not only the City of London, all haven towns and in very many parts within the land, the inhabitants in general are constrained to make their fires of sea-coal or pit coal, even in the chambers of honourable personages and through necessity which is the mother of all arts, they have in late years devised the making of iron the making of all sorts of glass and the burning of bricks with sea-coal and pit-coal 1

That was it. The thin end of the wedge. The slippery slope. For the first time, humanity was starting to depend on a non-renewable, and hence unsustainable, energy source for its comfort and livelihood. It was understandable that it did. Which of us would have worried about the long-term consequences of burning black stones collected from beaches in Northumberland, or which had been dug out of shallow holes in the ground?

I then pointed out that as the demand for coal increased, the easiest, shallowest mines were soon exhausted, and deeper and deeper pits had to be dug. This posed enormous problems since a shaft floods if it is sunk below the water table and a pump has to be installed to keep things reasonably dry. The early pumps consisted of rags or buckets on continuous chains which were turned by horses or, if a stream was handy, a water wheel. However, the deeper a shaft went, the longer the chain had to be and the more friction the horse or the wheel had to overcome. As this placed a real limit on how deep a mine could go, mine-owners were keen to find other ways of powering their pumps. Around the time Edmund Howes was writing, coal-fired steam power began to be used for the first time for pumping water out of mines. In a somewhat incestuous way, coal energy was being used for mining coal.

The transformation of manufacturing methods

The first steam engines just moved a piston back and forth, which was all that was required to work a cylinder-type pump. It was only during the following century that the piston was attached to a crank to turn a revolving shaft, an innovation in response to a demand for rotary power from cotton mills unable to find additional sites for their waterwheels. This was the type of engine, of course, that powered the industrial revolution and, in my view, led with an alarming inevitability to the problems we have today. It was steam power, in fact, which made the widespread use of machines possible and then, for competitive reasons, absolutely necessary.

The essence of industrialisation is that it produces lower-cost goods by using capital equipment and external energy to replace the skilled, and thus relatively expensive, labour used in hand crafts. Since less labour is used per unit of output, unemployment develops unless sales expand. The mechanisation of sock and lace production in the English midlands led to such widespread job losses that riots broke out in 1811 and 1812. Troops were sent to the area to stop the Luddites, as the bands of destitute working men were called, from breaking into the new factories and destroying the machines. Indeed, had the Napoleonic War not ended in 1815 allowing the factories to increase their sales in Europe and elsewhere, the disturbances might have become serious enough to kill off the industrial revolution. Without wider markets, firms using powered machinery would have either consumed themselves in a competitive frenzy, or seen their technologies banned as a result of popular unrest.

Eventually, however, British exports put most continental craft producers out of business and left the remainder with no alternative but to adopt more fossil energy–intensive methods too. A sales pyramid developed. The early participants in a sales pyramid get rich because they receive commission on the goods they sell to people whom they have persuaded to become dealers too; dealers who, in turn, can earn a commission from others they induce to join the pyramid as dealers later on, who themselves recruit and stock further dealers. And so it goes on, setting up a situation in which everyone in the pyramid can only fulfil their income aspirations if the pyramid does the impossible and expands indefinitely, eventually involving infinitely more people than there are in the world.

The fossil fuel-based production system became dominant by expanding on exactly the same lines. Just as British factories had needed to take over the markets previously served by craft-scale manufacturers in Europe to survive, industrial Europe had to oust artisanal producers elsewhere in the world, and the British sold them the machinery to do so.

Tariff barriers were maintained to allow the new continental industries to build themselves up until they could not only compete with their British rivals but had acquired export markets in which to sell themselves. It was the need for exclusive external markets to solve the problem of mass unemployment at home that led the European powers to scramble to assemble competing empires and eventually to confront each other in the First World War.

As each successive group of countries was forced to adopt mechanised production methods themselves in the hope of escaping poverty, so those who had mechanised earlier sold them the equipment. The pyramid this created grew and grew until it reached the point some years ago when there were no more markets supplied by craft producers to take over. This left firms in the pyramid with no-one to displace but each other, and since then, international competition has become so intense that only certain specialised types of manufacturing such as armaments, aerospace and pharmaceuticals thrive in high-wage countries, arguably because of the subsidies they receive through government contracts or patent protection.

How the economy came to rely on economic growth to avoid collapse

The use of fossil energy not only displaced sustainable manufacturing methods, it also made the economy dependent on economic growth. In a stable, stationary economy, there is no net investment and no net saving. Everything produced in the course of a year either gets consumed or goes to replace things that have worn out. The return on capital is so low – somewhere between 2 and 3% – that it’s only just worth using part of the sales income to maintain the buildings and equipment rather than the business owners spending it on themselves. In other words, the average rate of profit is just enough to balance the society’s desire for income now against its desire for income in the future.

Suppose a new technology – steam power, perhaps – is introduced to this stable economy which enables much higher profits to be made in a particular business sector. The firms in the sector will race to adopt it because those that get it first will be able to cut prices a little and drive the laggards out of business. The would-be leaders won’t be content to wait until they have saved up enough of the money they would normally have spent on maintaining the old equipment until they can afford the new type. No, they will want to borrow the money they need to get ahead. But where is the money they wish to borrow to come from, since their society has no net savings and no spare resources? The answer is that the money and resources can only come from those that would have been spent on maintaining capital equipment in other sectors. The output from the other sectors will therefore shrink, shortages will develop and prices will rise, putting up the return on the remaining capital until it reaches the rate that the sector with the new technology is able to offer.

The arrival of a new technology in one sector therefore increases the rate of return on capital in all sectors. Profits in excess of those needed to maintain production appear for the first time and workers get a reduced share of the amount the society produces. Moreover, the profits belong to the business owners. This creates a capitalist class with potential investment power. I say potential because what happens next depends on whether other innovations follow the first. If they don’t, once the investment needs of the new technology are met, prices will fall and profits drop to the level set by people’s time preference, the 2 or 3%. If, on the other hand, there is a stream of innovations, profits could grow to become a substantial part of national income.

This creates the problem noted by Major C. H. Douglas, the founder of the Social Credit movement, who realised that the wages paid to workers could not buy everything that they had produced and that if there was to be full employment, the profits firms produced had to be spent back into the system. It doesn’t matter how it is spent, but people whose lifestyle is already satisfactory will probably either save it or use it for more investment. If they save it, someone else needs to borrow it and spend or invest it instead.

The situation in a typical country today is that just over 20% of its income needs to be invested back each year as, if it was all saved, 20% of the workforce would find themselves without jobs. But the people doing the investing demand a satisfactory return and only if economic growth takes place and incomes increase will they be able to get one. If the broad mass of investors fails to get a return one year, they will not invest the next. Unemployment will increase and prices will fall, pulling profits down with them. The amount available for investment will be reduced and the economy will move along a low-growth or no-growth path until another series of innovations comes along.

For the past 200 years, however, a flow of innovations has brought about rapid growth. Many of these innovations have involved the substitution of fossil energy for energy from human, animal and solar sources because, if a worker’s efforts can be supplemented in this way, he or she can produce much, much more. An averagely fit man can apply about 75 watts to his work. If he is assisted by a one-horsepower motor, the sort you might find on a hobbyist’s circular saw, he can apply ten times more power to the task and consequently work much faster. A positive feedback develops, with the greater productivity leading to higher profits and incomes and additional investment and energy use. The income gap between those using fossil energy and those who don’t gets wider and wider. In 1960, the average income in high-fossil-energy-using countries was 30 times that in low-energy countries. By 2001 it was almost 90 times larger. Moreover, the 20% of the world living in high-energy, high-income countries enjoyed 80% of world income, investment and trade.

It is therefore reasonable to say that the use of fossil energy facilitated a greater division of income and wealth than was usual between worker and business owner in artisanal societies. It also led to industrial capitalism and the development of the banking system because, once some enterprise owners were making more profit than they needed to plough back into their own companies, a mechanism was required to take their savings and lend them out to people who did want to invest. A structure was also needed to handle the profit-sharing part of those investment funds – the limited liability company.

I need hardly say that, just as the use of fossil fuels drove people out of manufacturing, it also drove them off the land. The use of fertilisers, tractors and sprays made each farm worker much more productive so less labour was required. In 1790, at least 90% of the US labour force worked in agriculture. In the year 2000, less than 1.4% did while still, producing enough to meet home and export demand. The average American farmer produced 12 times more an hour in 2000 than his predecessor did in 1950 2. Again, these changes were irresistible. Food prices fell by about 90% in relation to average incomes between 1920 and 1990. This meant that farmers had to increase their output by at least 1,000% for their income to keep up with the rest of society. As this could only be done by using fossil energy and industrial sector inputs, their output had to increase further to pay for them.

In May 2005, however, this period of rapid income growth for some and the displacement and poverty for others came to an end when world oil production ceased to increase. Indeed world energy supplies, and the supplies of other commodities, had been struggling to keep up with growing demand for two years previously and their prices had begun to rise. In dollar terms, the price of oil had risen to five or six times its 2003 level by 2008, while there was, on average, a tenfold rise in the price of other commodities over the same period. To give two examples, the price of copper quadrupled between 2003 and 2006, while the lead price peaked in 2007 at eight times its 2003 value.

These price rises caused the international financial crisis, as I explain in a later chapter. They were a signal that we should stop doing our Pompeii-style repairs and move away from the present system by devoting all our resources to building a civilisation on a different basis, just as we would in a military emergency.

This book is all about how such a new civilisation might be built, the resources that might be available for the transition and how our attitudes will have to change to bring it about. Many of the perversions listed at the top of this article need to be undone. Some we can do for ourselves and our families. Some can only be achieved on a community scale. In other cases, national and/or international action is required. Suggestions for action are given in the final chapter.

The task is immense and, on a global level, our version of Vesuvius will probably overwhelm us while we are doing it. Only those countries and communities that have made a determined break with the past will have a chance of surviving at a comfortable level. The rest of us will find that the systems on which our lives and livelihoods depend are overwhelmed and break down entirely, never to recover, and that we have no alternative support systems upon which to fall back. We cannot expect to get any clearer warnings of impending disaster than the people of Pompeii received. There are already financial fires around the economic cone. If we are to survive we need to move out quickly. Now.

But which way are we to go? Is there a map? It would be a poor book about an emergency situation which did not provide one. So, for the final chapter, my co-editor and I asked the contributors to suggest actions which readers could take or support at four levels – personal, community, national and global. In general. it is only at the national and global levels that fairly firm suggestions can be made and these are exactly those over which our readers have least influence. There is, in fact, a continuum. Influence diminishes the more people are involved. Readers can do a lot to change their own behaviour and probably have appreciable influence over their immediate families. They have less influence over what they could do, or try to get done, in their communities, and at a national and international level they have almost no influence at all.

There are two problems with this. One is that, at the personal level, circumstances vary so much that it is hard to find even broad general principles which apply to everyone. For example, should people spend their resources on cutting their household’s energy use or would it be better to invest the money involved in a community renewable energy project? And the answer is…. it all depends. There is no single right answer.

The other problem is that the key actions to ensure our survival can only be carried out at the national and international level. This is where the Pompeii analogy breaks down. The workmen who left their tools when the ash began to fall had somewhere they could run to with their families to be safe. People today don’t. Nowhere on the planet will be left undamaged by the environmental and economic catastrophes that will occur if the nations of the world continue on their present path. So it’s not just a question of some of us heeding the warning fires and running away, leaving the rest to their fate. We have to convince the majority of the world’s population to come along too.

We should therefore adopt collective solutions wherever possible rather than personal ones. This does not mean that individual acts are unimportant, of course. Indeed, they often ease the way for everyone else. The more individuals who decide to cycle to work, for example, the better the collective provision that is likely to be made for them. Similarly, the more people who fit triple-glazed windows, the easier and cheaper such windows are likely to become for others to obtain. However, it would make no sense for you to buy your own single-house wind turbine unless you cannot get a connection to the electricity grid. Its cost would be high in relation to its output and the energy and materials used in its construction would have been more productive had they been used to make a bigger machine. Nor would you be able to regard yourself as a worthy eco-pioneer because your solution could never be adopted by everyone else. Power needs are better met collectively; and it was three neighbouring families’ battle to develop a collective supply that led to the development of the Danish wind energy industry 3. The Transition Towns movement is potentially so important only because it has adopted a collective approach to energy, food and money supplies.

So Gill and I suggest that you should ask yourself three questions as you work your way through this book. The first is “What can I do myself?”, the second “What can I do with other people?” and the third is “What can’t I do anything about at all?” Each person will gather his or her individual set of answers because of their particular circumstances and we expect that they will find it interesting to compare them with those suggested by our authors in the final section.

Overall, we think you will find that this is an optimistic book because, although the world is facing huge problems, there are also a lot of potential solutions. Consequently, there’s a lot that can be done. We hope that, by the time you have finished reading, you have found there are some things which you, personally, are in a better position than anyone else to do or to help others do.


1. Quoted by Richard G. Wilkinson, Poverty and Progress, London: Methuen, 1973, p115.
2. Productivity Growth in U.S. Agriculture, by Keith O. Fuglie, James M. MacDonald, and Eldon Ball, September 2007, downloadable at
3. See “How three families started a movement and created an industry” at http://www.feasta. org/documents/shortcircuit/index.html?sc5/windguilds.html or pages 203-7 in my book Short Circuit, Green Books, Totnes, 1996.