Wednesday, 30 March 2011

My Struggle to Make Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil

Peak Oil, I get. I’ve been in Transition for three years and had my end of suburbia moment(s). I understand that fossil fuels are limited and non-renewable. That as the world’s oil fields diminish, demand exceeds production, and the remaining crude oil is harder and more expensive to extract, the enery return on energy invested (EROEI) drops to a fraction of what it was when oil was plentiful. No more cheap petrol. Oil prices soar. And along with them the price of everything else in our industrialised, oil-dependent global economy – including food.

The same with Climate Change, the anthropogenic variety. Creating a vast artificial industrial complex all over the planet which demands huge amounts of energy, destroys most of the rainforests and other complex eco-systems and burns billions of tons of fossil fuels every year with its attendant carbon emissions and expecting it not to affect the climate just makes no sense.

These two ‘drivers’ informed the beginnings of the Transition movement six years ago – a challenge to people and communities to respond to Peak Oil and Climate Change and start preparing for a (liveable, maybe even preferable) energy-leaner future without the whole world falling apart. When the financial crisis hit with the credit crunch in 2008 the economic downturn became the third driver.

Then last year Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) presented her talk Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil at the Transition Conference. It changed the whole course of the event. Suddenly Transition was seriously looking at economics and finance – money.

Money is where a vast amount of our attention and energy is invested (sic) and informs most of our decisions and choices, whether we have it or not. For the majority of us on a very basic level it’s the means by which we have a roof over our heads and put food on the table in the current economic system.

But it’s also where a lot of our aspirations, fears, fantasies and desires get caught up, “When I’m rich and famous, I’ll have a big house (and servants!!!…)” Yes, I wanted it too! This has been the case since money was invented but it’s been exacerbated by the creation of trillions of dollars of virtual wealth over the past thirty years. In addition, enough people have become more wealthy or comfortable in that time for others to feel they have the chance to follow.

But all this virtual wealth has been fuelled by cheap plentiful energy. This is where the connection with peak oil comes in. There will not be enough available energy for the modern Western resource-intensive lifestyle to continue. There won’t be enough real wealth to support it. The gap between rich and poor is already widening, bringing into sharp focus questions about social equality and the sharing of available resources.

So any conversation about the future has to include a discussion about money. Stoneleigh alluded to this on Friday night in Norwich. “It’s important to understand the way the global economy works,” she said several times. How markets work. How we are entering a time of deflation after a 30 year financial bubble. How housing (in the UK) has now become worth 8 times our incomes and yet the price of real things that matter like tools and bread are cheap and almost without value. How this will change as houses lose their value and the prices of real necessities like bread and milk go up. How when people can no longer afford the repayments on their mortgages, if one person sells their house in a neighbourhood cheaply, the prices of all the houses in that neighbourhood are affected. Meanwhile personal and global debt is enormous (the UK has the second highest debt-GDP ratio in the world after Japan).

This suggests the need for a good, hard look at what our values are. These are the conversations that need to take place. In the Stranger’s Circle meeting last year when we talked about "Stuff", each of us produced an item of value to us - all of them tools to do with either communication or making or mending things.

Social and communications skills were high on Stoneleigh’s list for what we’ll need in the times ahead, along with food growing and the ability to make things. We’ll also need to find inexpensive ways of entertaining ourselves.

I’ve been grappling with all these things since the talk, alone and in conversations with Charlotte and Nick. They’re hard to understand and hard to talk about, almost like breaking a taboo or a spell. It's like trying to catch a magician out in a sleight of hand. Or chasing shadows. Money is so entrenched in our perception of value.

But when relationships between people are given value, then you can start to share things. Some of those things cost little or no money.

Like joining in a Give and Take day, or listening to a storyteller in Bungay Library or going on a bee and flower mapping walk with Netta through Beccles and listening to the bees roar in the goat willow.

A follow-up discussion of Nicole Foss's talk will take place at Aladdin's Cafe on Magdalen Street, 12th April at 6.00pm. Everyone welcome.

Pics: Not Chasing Shadows with Netta and Charlotte in Beccles; Goat Willow with Bumblebee


  1. thanks for the insight Mark. I was sad to miss the talk and I am looking forward to the discussion.

  2. I'm now in the library and have just noticed a headline on the front of the Telegraph: FIRST INCOME FALL FOR 30 YEARS. This is in Britain and refers to disposable income.