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The Crisis of Civilization is an Unprecedented Opportunity

Converging climate, energy, and economic crises signal the potential to transition to a prosperous post-carbon era

A banner reading 'Capitalism isn't working' at the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest. (Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)Earlier this month, I had the honour of being interviewed by Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement and co-founder of the Transition Network. In an interview with the Guardian back in June, Hopkins explained his inspiring vision for how small-scale actions at a community level could change the world.

In our conversation, Hopkins was keen to explore my take on these issues as a journalist and academic. He quizzed me about my take on the scale of the environmental, energy and economic challenges we face this century, and the potential for solving them. It was a wide-ranging and lengthy conversation covering some of the issues I've covered in this blog and beyond, the gist of which was that the various crises we face today - from climate change to the economy - are not separate, distinct crises, but rather facets of a wider crisis of industrial civilisation in its current form. The crisis, fundamentally, is linked to our dependence on fossil fuels; but the reality is that whichever way one looks at it, optimistically or pessimistically, this century signals the end of the age of fossil fuels.

Importantly, that's not to say that we're all doomed. Far from it: while the crisis of civilisation shows that business-as-usual is not sustainable - and could at worst lead to an uninhabitable planet by the end of this century based on the consensus science projections - I've argued that we are already in the midst of a process of civilisational transition which offers unprecedented opportunities to re-envision new forms of prosperity that can function in harmony with our environment, rather than in conflict with it.

Below, I've put together a few snippets from our conversation, but you can read the whole transcript here, and also listen to it here.

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

Me: There's a lot of hype in a lot of these industries. A lot of what my reporting has focused on recently is trying to distinguish between the hype and the facts, and how we square up the reality of the actual costs of energy these days and the fact that energy is a lot more expensive.
The reports I was looking at on shale gas were from a lot of very credible sources. You had a guy, David Hughes, who used to work for the Canadian government, assessing Canada's national oil and gas supplies for about 30 years. Another was by Deborah Rogers who is an advisor to the US government, on the problems with fracking. She's actually an advisor to the US Department of the Interior. Also there was a report from the Energy Watch Group based in Germany which was authored by a physicist. The Energy Watch Group is a network of European scientists who have been looking at these issues for a while.

The overall result of the research that these guys put out was that if you take into account these overestimations and underestimations, the picture you come away with is actually quite worrying, to the extent that we're looking at the idea that shale gas could really just be a Ponzi scheme. This is industry just keeping things afloat but it's not really going to solve our energy problem in the long run.

This century is the end of the age of fossil fuels and it doesn't matter which way you look at it, even if you look at it from an optimistic perspective, you're still looking at declining and depleting during the first quarter of this century.

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

If we are looking at the end of the age of fossil fuels for a variety of reasons this century, then what does the alternative look like and how do we get there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that's the potential of people just getting up and saying enough is enough, I don't need to wait for someone else, for my representatives to do something for me or for us, I can do it myself and start moving towards that. It might not be everything that I might hope to see, but if I don't do that now, then in a way I'm allowing, conceding power to these other entities whereas if I just take that step forward and take action now, I'm actually taking control and taking ownership.

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

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

Ultimately, that choice of what the world is going to look like is really down to us, and the future is quite open. If you're going to say we're all doomed and there's no point in doing anything, you become part of the problem and create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and are no longer basically of any use to humanity because you've just said this is how it's going to be and have now disempowered yourself.

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

People are really hungry actually for answers, hungry for solutions, hungry for alternatives, so really this is actually an unprecedented opportunity. It's an unprecedented crisis but it's also an opportunity to dream-weave and say "well actually everything is going to go to pot over the next 20-30 years if we don't change, so here's an opportunity to think outside the box."