Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Under a Flourescent Moon

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (2005) (March 29 2009)

Mr Obama heads to Europe now where official hostility is rising against the Anglo-American method of pounding monetary sand down the rat-holes of "non-performing" debt, bankrupt enterprise, and bubble-levitated bonds. Our poised and charming Prez may escape personal obloquy from the quaint old-world street folk, but most of the other G-20 policy playerz take a dim view of the shell-and-pea games being played by the custodians of the world's reserve currency, including front-end-loader bank bail-outs, the shuffling of worthless securities under TARPS and TARFS, the desperate efforts to prevent the sane re-pricing of real estate, the cannibalizing of treasuries by the Federal Reserve, the now-notorious hijacking of public "liquidity" injections by third parties like Goldman Sachs, and most generally the perceived sacrifice of everybody else's greater good for the sake of maintaining Lloyd Blankfein's cappuccino machine.

What's going on now is nature's way of telling you that America's standard of living has to be reduced by something between twenty and fifty percent. You can have it in the form of a compressive deflationary depression, including widespread bankruptcies … or you can have by way of inflation, in which money loses its value. But there's one basic qualification to this: the way down is not symmetrical with the way up. That is, it's really not just a matter of ratcheting down to a standard of living half of what it was, say, in 2006, because in the event all the various complex systems that support everyday life enter failure mode before our society re-sets at a theoretically lower level of equilibrium.

By this I mean our methods for getting food, for moving about the landscape, for deploying capital, for trading and manufacturing, for schooling, doctoring, and running public services all destabilize and, to some degree or other, fail to deliver their contribution to normal daily life. Banking (capital deployment) is already mortally wounded. It remains to be seen how this will affect the food supply half a year ahead in the harvest system. Capital is as big an "input" for our method of farming as diesel fuel or fertilizers made from methane gas. The failure of banking will combine with city and state insolvency to crush public transit, law enforcement, fire protection, and whatever flimsy local safety nets exist to keep the ultra-poor and helpless from die-off. The lowering of living standards by twenty to fifty percent essentially eliminates all but the must critical commerce, meaning that most of the stores in the malls and strip malls lose their customers and shed employees, while the mall and strip mall owners lose their rents, and the bankers lose performing commercial real estate loans. As all this occurs, tax revenues go way down, schools can't pay their employees or buy diesel fuel for their yellow bus fleets. More people lose the ability to carry health insurance. Hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed. Health care descends to Third World levels. Meanwhile, pensions are destroyed, the elderly live on dog food and ketchup ...

This is where we're headed. It could easily be worse than the 1930s, when we still had plenty of family farms, plenty of oil, plenty of factories in good running order, and a highly regimented population of workers unaccustomed to luxury, leisure, and entitlement. We've hardly begun to see the potential political repercussions of economic disorder now underway. I think it will start to show in a big way not long after Memorial Day, when the current false euphoric Wall Street rally ends in yet another pool of tears, and the despair trickles downward. A crucial piece of the outcome depends on what happens over at Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department - which lately seems to have seceded from the federal government. A peeved public is going to start wondering why the bankers and insurers have not been called in by the criminal division to do a little 'splainin'. As the spring yields to summer, the Obama team's current fix-it plans are also likely to have run out of credibility. Mr O better be prepared to get a new game.

I spent the weekend at the yearly Aspen Institute Environmental Forum - a confab lately devoted about equally to the energy and climate fiascos. It's a peculiar exercise, since major sponsors include the oil and gas companies and the auto industry. The Saturday center-ring panel on peak oil, for instance, was shockingly weak, led by the flack from the Shell corporation, a charming lady, highly-skilled at blowing green smoke up the public's ass. Even more shocking is the consensus among the presenters and attendees - including the hotshots of climate and energy science and the elder statespersons of environmentalism - that the energy problem merely amounts to finding other means for running all our cars. The assumption that we must remain car-dependent remains absolutely entrenched among these people who ought to know better. Of course, the words "public transit" were barely uttered. It's disappointing to find such idiocy among this particular elite.

But Sunday's departure really plunged me into the epicenter of American idiocy - namely, the airline industry. They've been running airplanes out of Pitkin County, Colorado for at least fifty years, but they seem to discover a'fresh every morning that strange winds blow through the valley. After jerking around absolutely everybody in the terminal for a couple of hours with unexplained delays, the United Airlines ground crew announced that all flights for the day were cancelled, causing a rhino rush back out through the security checkpoints to re-booking counters. I ended up on a bus for the Denver Airport - a five hour trip, including twenty-miles of parking-lot quality traffic along I-70 where the jackass Colorado DOT had closed down one eastbound lane, despite the fact that it was Sunday and there was no work going on there.

You'd also think that after all these years, the state of Colorado might have organized choo-choo train service from Denver into the ski valleys of the Rockies, given how important the ski industry is to the state's economy - and how incredibly fragile the airline service is. But that would be too sensible for a nation determined to become the Bulgaria of the western hemisphere. So, instead, they get up every single morning in Aspen and try to figure out whether commercial aviation works out there, and half the time it doesn't. Anyway, the Aspen Institute was very generous in organizing the bus trek out of there, and putting up us travelers stranded overnight in airport hotels. Mine was some rummy operation called the Staybridge Inn where the vaunted in-room wireless didn't work in my room, so I write to you in a dreary little chamber off the lobby where children are screaming from their overdoses of fry-max and melted cheese in the only dining venue (Ruby Tuesdays) along this massively over-scaled boulevard of chain motels. I can easily see the whole miserable strip becoming a ruin inside of five years as the airline industry dies. Final note: the hotel elevator proudly declares itself to be the German-made product of the ThyssenKrupps corporation. America's so lame, it can't even make its own elevators anymore.

I apologize for a somewhat sloppy blog this week. My tendencies to insomnia are aggravated by high altitude and I am cross-eyed with sleeplessness ...

My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

Bill Totten

The Free Nature Movement

Why the environmental movement has failed to protect the environment. Introducing the "Free Nature Movement" and why like abolition and suffrage it can succeed in freeing nature from humanity.

by Chuck Burr

Culturequake (March 03 2009)

The Fall of Modern Culture and The Rise of Earth Culture

Environmentalism is not a movement. For a political campaign to be considered a movement, it has to drive a new right into the Constitution. Recycling and carpooling is not amending the Constitution. The environmental movement cannot, as it is currently structured, protect the other species from our burgeoning population.

Nothing is effectively achieved until the Constitution is amended. A 28th Amendment that gives all other species equal rights to humanity would enable legislation to begin to reverse the 233 years of exploitation that the US is founded upon.

This is not as far fetched as it sounds. In 2002 the lower house of parliament in Germany, the Bundestag, adopted a bill that for the first time enshrined animal rights in the Constitution. The bill, passed by a huge majority. The bill added, "The state takes responsibility for protecting the natural foundations of life and animals in the interest of future generations". This makes Germany the first country that as far as I know to give constitutional rights to animals. This is as good a place as any to say where the Free Nature Movement began.

On a local level, your town council or county commissioners can adopt the "The Rights of Nature Ordinance". First passed in 2006 by the Tamaqua Borough Council in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, the ordinance states that, "People and their communities are trustees of nature, and communities of nature and ecosystems form part of the natural trust".

What is a "right"

A right is more than the right to vote. A true right is to allow all other species to follow their own destiny as given by the universe and by god.

Today we have enslaved nature to do our bidding. The Bible refers to man's dominion, "over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth".

As many know, this enslavement actually began with agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago when one tribe started living a new story that, "the world belongs to man". This was the birth of our modern taker culture. One tribe in the fertile crescent between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers cast away the story that enabled humanity to live in symbiosis with the earth's ecosystem for three million years that, "humanity belongs to the earth".

Equal rights also includes equal consideration and representation. Most indigenous tribes have rituals to testify that the human family is one strand in the larger web of life, to acknowledge all our relations. For instance, the Hopi of the Southwest United States have celebrated a Council of All Beings ritual with masks representing plants and animals for thousands of years.

"Freedom" is a lie

Freedom is probably the greatest lie created by the agricultural revolution and is the foundation of our modern culture. Since we are born our culture tells us that we want to be free from want; it's a double negative. And the way to obtain freedom is to work hard to be able to buy or consume the things that will make us free including food, shelter, and clothing. Our culture's idea of freedom is a lifetime of enslavement to pay for mortgage for a roof over our heads.

True freedom, like a true right, is the ability to follow your own destiny. Being locked in a consumer culture making things to get things is not freedom.

The concept of freedom has also been used as an excuse to perpetuate our culture in the form of continued exploitation of man and beast. Because those at the top "are free" they can do as they please. The wealthy are free to consume in a global economy where a minority exploits the majority.

We also use freedom to justify our unlimited procreation. As far back as the Old Testament, Adam chooses Eve. Eve literally translates to "life". Adam has chosen to forgo the limits of nature, to take more than humanity's fair share from all other species, and to produce a surplus of food to grow a larger population. We can do this because, "we are free - humanity is free of limits".

Earth Culture will enable the Free Nature Movement

When enough people figure out that modern culture cannot take care of them or their decedents, a tipping point to the creation of new cultures will have arrived. Today new earth culture(s) are beginning to grow out of our decaying modern taker culture. Our current financial crisis probably will begin this awakening or remembering.

We are beginning to remember what it took for an average person to make a living in harmony with the web of life. It boils down to giving support to get support instead of making things to get things.

Once we can turn that corner and make that mental shift that we are just one strand of the web of life and that we need the entire web for not only our sake, but for the sake of our relations, then we will let go of our false freedom. For instance, we will also be at the point we are able to let go of private property and growth without limits. When this shift in values happens, we will give our selves the alternatives we need to live new lifestyles.

By letting go of our "freedom" to do as we will, we "free" nature from her bondage and exploitation.

Transition to a new culture

So how are we going to get there? A big part of the answer to that question is in this graphic of Saudi oil depletion. We are good through 2010, then it is down to nothing in a relatively short period of time. Just look at the chart at .

Think about this, world population in 1850 before the use of oil was about one billion, and that was before we entered overshoot and significantly drew down natural resources. In 1850 we had nearly an intact new continent and ecosystem, today we have peak everything and a biodiversity crash with 6.8 billion. This means there are about 5.8 billion people here, in my opinion, mostly because of oil. An eight-wheel farm tractor with a GPS does no good without diesel; your back to the draft horse. And don't tell me you are going to mine, mill, smelt, and fabricate a steel tractor with a solar collector.

Many say we have a century left of coal, but that may not be the case either. For instance, according to a recent USGS study, the coal reserve estimate for the Gillette coal field is 10.1 billion short tons, which is a mere five percent of the original 200 billion ton resource total. In other words, the USGS has just revised the Gillette resource base down by 95%. The Gillette coal field in Wyoming has been the most prolific coal field in the US. This region has been nicknamed the "Fort Knox of coal". In 2006, output from the Gillette region totaled over 431 million short tons of coal, or over 37% of US total yearly production.

The transition to the steady-state we are heading for will take in my estimation, another 100 years to finally plateau. How rough it will be remains to be seen. But, judging by how hard the dominant paradigm is hanging on, it will be rough. My biggest question is how much biodiversity, the ecosystem's resilience, will be left by 2100?

What will the new lifestyle look like?

You have to accept that we are not going to be here to see it. We will see the transition from the age of exuberance to the age of powering down; that is happening now. The age of powering down will be one of learning lost skills, building community, figuring out how to do with less, and leaving behind much of the stuff we can't use any more. If you take the seats out, your SUV may make a nice playhouse for the grandkids.

In this phase, humanity may begin to loosen its grip over nature. The diminishing human population will start to leave more room for the other species. Our mindset will have not changed yet, the world will "still belong to man", but nature will get some breathing room. I just hope there is enough of her left to regenerate. Humanity is pushing every species except cows to the edge of extinction.

If enough of nature is left after 2100 years, that is when the restoration time begins. Hopefully what is left of modern culture will be so shell shocked in 100 years by what they have lost that our descendants will just walk away from that failed lifestyle and live closer to the earth. They will have to.

It is easy to describe a future supped-up 1850s lifestyle maybe with radios, but it is the ethics and story that we live by that will make all the difference. For the last 110 years our ethics have been blinded by an addiction to a cheap energy surplus that created all this stuff, technology, and the middle class. Without cheap energy, it will all go away. Lets hope there are people starting to think about building knowledge arks now.

The point is that it is the story we live by that can free nature. If we can remember the original story that worked for humanity for three million years, that "humanity belongs to the earth", then we will be able to let go of our selves, our grasping, and our freedom in order to free nature.

In the end, I believe that the Free Nature Movement will just happen because the dominant culture will just go away. There will be very little modern taker culture left to have to convince to allow nature to follow her destiny. It will just happen.


Read Culturequake: The End of Modern Culture and the Rise of Earth Culture.

Visit to learn more about the book Culturequake and the blog.

Copyright (c) 2009 Chuck Burr LLC


BBC News - Germany to grant animal rights

CELDF - Rights of Nature Ordinance

EarthLight - The Ecological Self

Culture Change - Counter argument for "Stimulus", growth and employment

The Honoring All Life Foundation - Exploring Choices Honoring the Essence of All

Culturequake - Usufruct: End Private Property to Solve the Financial Crisis and Create Food Security

The Oil Drum - Saudi Arabia's Crude Oil Production Peaked in 2005

Energy Bulletin - How much coal is out there?

Wikipedia - World population


Chuck Burr teaches permaculture in Ashland, Oregon. Chuck has an MBA in finance, a BA in accounting, interned for President Reagan, is a retired software CEO, and has served on several nonprofit boards. His latest book is Culturequake: The Fall of Modern Culture and the Rise of Earth Culture.

Chuck Burr, LLC.

Culturequake: The End of Modern Culture and the Rise of Earth Culture

"I predicted what’s happening today and for the next ten to twenty years back in 2007 in the first edition of Culturequake. To find meaning in our world today, I have integrated the history that brought us here, a prediction of the growing perfect storm, with the only real long-term solution - living a new story." -- Chuck Burr

"Tying together the bits and pieces, the anecdotes, stories and flashes of recognition for the first time". -- Marc Hurlbert.

"While not everyone is ready to drop their current lifestyles, the idea that there is a different way to live that harmonizes our relations with all living beings is both comforting and exciting. Culturequake is a highly recommended read." -- Kris Holstrom

"A thoroughly researched and well-indexed book. Great for those who are new to the idea of how people in our culture live beyond the human definition. It also serves as a great reference for those already 'in' on the taker/leaver concept. Chuck writes in a simple, easy to read style without a lot of flowery conjecture. This is a fact-filled book that I believe I will use as a reference for years to come." -- Eric Jergensen

"As alarming world news is now, his fresh, brilliant, new message is that the answers that served humanity well for so long before these times can still serve us well. In fact, combining the best of both world's, it could be so great, we'd look on the last few thousand years as a mere hiccup." -- John Cruickshank

Trafford Pulishing.

Bill Totten

Monday, March 30, 2009

Welcome to Fuffland!

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (March 22 2009)

In the unfolding global financial collapse, it is not just our accounts and balance sheets that come up short, but our language as well. What do you call a bunch of liar loans packaged into toxic assets and placed on the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve as collateral for rescue loans? J K Galbraith has proposed the term "Bezzle", taking it to mean the eternal ebb and flow of questionable transactions within an economic cycle. Rational actors cut corners during easy times when they know no-one is looking, and then play nice again when the times change and someone starts paying attention again.

But I believe that the phenomenon we are observing is something different: we need a word that describes the artifacts generated in response to irrational actors who demand to be fooled. As the old saying goes, "A fool and his money are soon parted" - at the fool's own insistence, no less! If the deer comes out of the forest and walks up to the hunter, it is not proper hunting, and this is not proper con artistry or grift or embezzlement or any other term we use to describe proper works of evil. If the victim, at the sight of the economic predator, goes into doggie submission, we must stop discussing the phenomenon in terms of conflict and consider whether what we are observing might be some strange instance of symbiosis.

I am Russian, and so I tend to use my Russian background to look for answers to questions big and small. Sometimes this works rather well for me. It seems that the Russians are better equipped to survive financial collapse than just about anyone else. They have formidable reserves of gold and foreign currency to soften the downward slide. They have a dwindling but still sizable endowment of things the world still wants, even if at temporarily reduced prices. They have plenty of timber and farmland and other natural resources, and can become self-sufficient and decouple themselves economically should they choose to do so. They have high-tech weaponry and a nuclear deterrent in case other nations get any crazy ideas. After all the upheavals, they have ended up with a centrally-managed, natural resource-based, geographically contiguous realm that is not overly dependent on global finance. Yes, the Russian consumer sector is crashing hard, and many Russians are in the process of losing their savings yet again, but they have managed to survive without a consumer sector before, and no doubt will again.

Be that as it may, because as far as our own welfare is concerned the subject of Russian economic survival will be little more than academic. Perhaps Russia will thrive, all the way on the other side of the globe, just like it did while we wallowed in the Great Depression; how could that be helpful to us, in our predicament? Well, it turns out that Russia has something to offer that should be to our great advantage in coming to terms with financial collapse, and it is something that it is perfectly willing to share with us, because it is just a matter of learning some new vocabulary. All we need to do is borrow a single word, and learn to understand the concept it signifies.

Yes, the Russians actually have a word for precisely the thing that has bewitched us, first accounting for an ever-increasing share of our gross domestic product, and is now responsible for our ever-larger financial black hole. That word is "фуфло" /fufló/ when applied to a quantity of something, and "фуфел" /fúfel/ when applied to a singular item. This word has the obscure English cognate "fuffle", which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to the early XVI century but fails to define adequately. I suspect that this word has been in circulation in many languages ever since some Protoindoeuropean simpleton showed up at some archaic fair and, being none too wise, bartered his meager trade goods in exchange for what thereafter became known as a fuffle. At that point, his story may have gone two different ways. Either he could have discovered that he'd been handed a fuffle, chased after the unlucky fuffller, and summarily ran him through with a pointed stick (positive outcome) or he could have stumbled back to his village proudly displaying his prize, and perhaps even got his entire tribe to acquire a taste for fuffles (negative outcome). In the latter case, the fuffle-addled tribe could never grasp the meaning of the word "fuffle", because doing so would have resulted in some painful cognitive dissonance. (Perhaps this psychological mechanism accounts for the fact the Anglo-Saxon tribe still has the vestigial word but no longer remembers its meaning.)

A fuffle is an artful fake, an artifact specifically made to fool, beguile, seduce, or intimidate people into paying for it. Ideally, the initial transaction serves as the basis of a permanent arrangement, with the victim roped into an installment plan, which keeps the payments flowing even after the fuffle itself has crumbled into a pile of dust. An even better fuffle is one that grows over time. Since a fuffle is, in essence, a fake, its useful properties, should it have any, are largely irrelevant, and so its abstract (which is to say, financial) properties come forth as being the essential ones. The most important such property is, quite obviously, size, and indeed fuffles tend to get bigger and bigger over time. This is a telltale feature of fuffles that makes them easier to identify: if something gets bigger and bigger over time while delivering the same or lesser value, then it is quite likely to be a fuffle. Also, fuffles breed: as a fuffle gets larger and larger, it produces offspring of other fuffles, which also grow. Examples come from many realms.

Take, for example, suburban and exurban houses. For a time, people couldn't get enough of them, and at one point fully half of the US population was living in them. Their square footage had increased far past what even a large family might actually need, while at the same time their cost had exceeded what an average family could afford. In the final act of suburban expansion, these fuffled houses begat fuffled mortgages: fraudulent loans clearly not intended to be repayable over their entire term but quickly rolled over into some other fraudulent monstrosity. And fuffled mortgages begat fuffled equity-backed securities. And these begat fuffled government bailouts.

Another example is America's favorite fufflemobile: the SUV. This is a truck chassis made to superficially resemble a gigantic passenger car, with none of the advantages of either and all the disadvantages of both. These were advertised as safer than cars, while they are some of the most unsafe passenger vehicles ever sold. These also grew in size and cost, while begetting fuffled auto loans, and eventually leading to fuffled automaker bailouts.

Or take the gigantic fuffle of guaranteed student loans, which enabled fuffle-like growth in college tuitions. Following a few years of flipping burgers or serving lattes the value of the diploma may be zero, and most of the knowledge it implied either forgotten or obsolete, but repayments continue, sometimes until the poor student's death. And if a period of financial hardship results in a deferment, interest and fees are piled on top of the original loan, allowing it to balloon to an astronomic size that bears no relation to either the value of the diploma or the expected earnings of the graduate. To keep the payments flowing, income and social security payments can be garnished.

My last example is private retirement based on IRA and 401k retirement funds. Unlike proper retirement systems, which transfer a percentage of earnings from working-age people directly to retirees, this fuffled scheme takes these earnings and invests them in some fuffles, expecting these fuffles to grow like they always do, making the retirees well off upon retirement. The non-fuffled fallback, as a lot of retired fufflers are about to discover, is to come to rely on your grown children for support, awkward though that may be.

It may be clear to us that fuffles must be eradicated. But it is almost impossible for a society that has for so long and to such an extent put its faith in fuffles to part with the notion that they are valuable and accept the notion that they are a lot worse than worthless. And so they grow and grow, until they swallow up the entire country. At some point last year, in a vain effort to avert financial collapse, the Federal Reserve started accepting fuffles (which they called "troubled assets") as collateral for fuffled rescue loans to insolvent financial institutions. Thus, the assets column of the Fed's balance sheet is now loaded with fuffles. And next, we have the US Treasury poised to create the next wave of fuffles. These are US Treasury securities, backed by whatever remains of the full faith and credit of the US Government, but destined to be sold not to investors (who have no taste for any more fuffles) but, in a truly incestuous move, to the same old Federal Reserve Bordello of Blood! They are calling this "quantitative easing". A better term would be "qualitative fuffling": the financial snake is finally eating its own tail. The Fed will place these fuffles on its balance sheet as assets, and in return issue prolific quantities of our new national currency: the US Fuffle. Like all fuffles, the US Fuffle will grow by leaps and bounds, by sprouting ever more denominations.

"How much do I owe you for this latte, dear graduate?"

"Well, Sir, that will be six trillion fuffles, if you please".

Welcome to Fuffland, people! Enjoy your stay!

Bill Totten

Steady-State Economy

Light at the End of the Tunnel

by Chuck Burr

Culture Change (February 16 2009)

The growing economic meltdown is a wake-up call that our infinite growth bubble has burst. After the house of cards finishes falling, there will be only one viable economic solution left standing: a steady-state economy.

Insolvency Crisis

The world economy is essentially broke. US daily bankruptcy filings have risen from about 1,300 in January 2006 to about 5,000 in September 2008.

Here is how big the problem really is. First, the value of all the money in the world until recently was three times greater than the value of all physical goods and services. In other words, our "money" is actually worth thirty cents on the dollar. And considering, physical assets such as real estate have been over valued, your pixel money is actually "worth-less".

Second, the US government's $9.7 trillion commitment to solving the financial crisis amounts to almost two-thirds of the value of everything produced in the US last year. The promises are composed of about $1 trillion in stimulus packages, around $3 trillion in lending and spending and $5.7 trillion in agreements to provide aid.

Third, until recently our growing economy has been able to cover our debts and deficits, but now the blue-light-special lifestyle is over. Everyone, from the public to governments is now under water. America has built up a staggering amount of debt. At the time of the 1929 stock market crash, total US debt was 176 per cent of GDP. Before the current financial crisis began, total debt stood at a whopping 304 per cent of GDP. Today it is far worse; we are well beyond our means.

The next bubble to burst will be pensions. America's 500 largest companies have a deficit of $200 billion in their pension plans. If the Dow hits 4,000, the deficit would rise to $400 to $500 billion. Companies will stop contributing and reduce payouts when forced to make a choice between payroll, corporate jets, and pension contributions.

Bailout Liquidity Makes Situation Worse

If the world financial crisis is really one of global insolvency, adding liquidity in the form of more government debt is actually dangerous. If I have a successful business and I borrow money for a temporary cash flow problem, no problem. But, if I am actually insolvent, increasing my debt by borrowing more money makes the situation worse for both me and the lender who will lose their investment in my soon to be bankrupt business.

Because of their size, the bailouts may ignite hyperinflation from all of the liquidity that is being generated out of thin air. Since the financial crisis began last year, the money supply has been nearly doubled out of thin air. Hyperinflation may cause the $50 trillion derivative markets to explode. The credit default swaps would be the first to blow driving interest rates to double digits which would light the fuse to the $50 trillion interest rate swaps supernova [more on this subject in a follow-up article - editor].

Wasted Opportunity

Since World War Two, we have produced little of value, but built a huge pile of debt upon debt. Europeans invaded what was an entire unspoiled continent 517 yeas ago, and today we have little of real value to show for it except a lot of people and a trashed ecosystem. What was once a vast expanse of fertility and old growth biodiversity from sea to shining sea is now an input-dependent monoculture wasteland. Take a ride on an plane while you still can and look down. Almost everything coming out of big-box stores is soon destined for the dumpster and our spread out suburban infrastructure will prove to be a liability as peak oil eliminates happy motoring.

Bernard Madoff''s $50 billion ponzi scheme revealed how our Taker economic system really works. The problem is bigger than just our institutions such as fractional reserve banking, the Federal Reserve, and the looming derivative bubble. Our entire Taker culture is based on little of value. Growth, debt, greed, concentration of wealth, something for nothing, depleted resources, and overpopulation are not assets - they are liabilities. If we are to ultimately thrive, we must contribute to biodiversity, not destroy it.

Long History

We have actually had this "value-less" system that Daniel Quinn calls our Taker culture for 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution. Ever since it became OK to lock up the food, privatize land, concentrate wealth, make war, and for a minority to control the majority we have been impoverished. As long as we had abundant enough natural resources and a low enough population, the Taker ponzi scheme worked. We kept consuming the world to keep everybody happy. But, now we have overshot the earth's carrying capacity.

Steady-State Economy

When all of the cards are done falling, local powered-down steady- state economies will be the only replacement for our infinite growth global consumer economy. To live within our means for perpetuity means living within the earth's carrying capacity which we have vastly reduced especially over the last 100 years.

Economic growth is a threat because it assumes a growth in population, production, and consumption within our finite planet. A steady-state economy has a constant stock of capital that is maintained by a rate of output no higher than the environment can absorb. Even banks can lend only as much money as they have.

In a steady-state economy, society focuses on more noble goals than economic growth. The late Masanobu Fukuoka asked "Why do you have to develop? If economic growth rises from five per cent to ten per cent, is happiness going to double? What's wrong with a growth rate of zero per cent? Isn't this a rather stable kind of economics? Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?"

Our economic measurement systems are a shell game. Bhutan's Gross National Happiness is a better indicator than our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP counts goods and services, but ignores the important things such a clean water, fresh air, public health, and biodiversity. GDP also lumps everyone together. If executive pay goes from 100 times average wages to 1,000 times, while real middle classes wages are falling, GDP does not show that. Concentration of wealth, externalized costs, depleted resources are invisible.

A sustainable economy requires a stable population, lower per capita consumption, and reduced complexity. In fact, since human population has overshot the earth's carrying capacity by over twenty per cent, our population and the economy are going to have to be significantly reduced size before true stability can occur. See Chapters three and four of Culturequake (2007) for an in-depth discussion of our population explosion and overshoot.

Also, since human population is in overshoot, taking more resources than the earth can generate, future carrying capacity will continue to be eroded. Imagine how great a population North America could have supported with all of our old-growth forests, topsoil, watersheds, and biodiversity intact? Now, half our topsoil is gone, much of what's left is dead mineral matter only able to supporting crops through fossil fuel fertilizers, watersheds and fisheries are collapsing, the Ogallala aquifer supplying farmers from the Dakotas to Texas will be depleted in forty years, and global warming is ending stable weather. I'll stop there.

Invest Locally

President Obama's Herculean effort to revive the consumer economy is about as useful as a bucket-brigade on the Titanic. I have great respect for president Obama's comitment and abilities, but he still clings to the illusion that "growth" is still possible with dwindling resources and a burgeoning population.

Other than feeding unemployed people and keeping them in their homes, the rest of the money would be better spent rebuilding our big-box bombed-out local communities, our railroads, and start Cuban-style urban agriculture and land reformation. Urban agriculture feeds half the people in Havana and eighty to 100 per cent of people in smaller cities. Bank deposits should be insured and insolvent banks allowed to fail.

This will probably be last time we will be able to muster this level of resources; the last time people will lend us this much money. Our resource base is a shadow of what it was 100 years ago and our population has grown six times. I am saddened to see what is ultimately my children's tax dollars squandered trying to revive the rusting, sinking hulk of our industrial economy.

Because our elected leaders and the media do not realize that we are entering the twilight of modern culture, they have not leveled with the people. Thus the people are not ready for the kind of cultural change we are going to see over the next century. It takes a crisis like this to be the wake-up call.

Economic Decline Can Be a Good Thing

Earnest Callenbach wrote in Ecotopia (1975) that a financial panic can be turned into an advantage if in the end society can be focus its energy, knowledge, and skills to what is really important in life. With the ensuing flight of capital, the factories, farms, and other productive facilities would fall into the people's hands like ripe plums. Whole markets should be reorganized, no one or no corporation should be able to own more than say forty acres. In fact, corporations should only exist for public projects such as roads or utility infrastructure and be de-chartered when the project is completed.

Our economy will be reshaped by many influences including re-localization, new-urbanism, peak oil, and learning lost horticulture and craft skills. Powering-down will happen discontinuously. We will rest at a plateau for a while and then drop to the next lower energy and complexity level. Governing institutions would be more useful if realigned along bioregion and watersheds lines - not in a continent- sized country made up of arbitrary squares.

Where to Begin?

Start where you are now and live your truth. Act from a sense of passion and joy. Plug into your local community; offer your skills and resources to sustainability efforts. Use your creative imagination. Ask yourself, "how can I partially or completely unplug from the wage economy in the next three years?" By doing so you will meet like minded people. If people see you as sharing what you have, they will share with you.

Turn off your TV and tune into your family, friends, and neighbors. Educate yourself about useful skills such as permaculture. You are better off living near a community on a good piece of land that you own in a yurt than you are buying a house with a mortgage that the bank owns.

Seek a new vision and a new lifestyle. Instead of recycling, how can my waste become another's food? Instead of debt, how can I simplify? Instead of mining topsoil how can I build it?

Humans are meant to take their modest place in a seamless web of life, disturbing that web as little as possible. This means sacrificing present complexity and consumption, but it ensures future survival. People should be happy not to the extent that they exploit their fellow man and creatures, but to the extent they live in balance with them.

Starting this spring, Culturequake essays will begin to describe our own personal journey to re-localize on our small permaculture farm in Ashland, Oregon. We will share our experiences with soil food web building, food forest design, installation, harvest, appropriate technology, and community education.


Herman Daly
Steady State Economics (1974)

James Bruges, Resurgence
Enduring Economies

Mark Pittman and Bob Ivry,
US Taxpayers Risk $9.7 Trillion on Bailout Programs

Bob Chapman
Acts Of Insanity Are What Destroyed The Economy

Larry Korn,

Masanobu Fukuoka's Natural Farming and Permaculture

Earnest Callenbach

Richard Heinberg
Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World

Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

Institute of Ecolonomics

Search for other articles by Chuck Burr in Culture Change, and visit to learn more about Culturequake the book and the online magazine. (c)2009 Chuck Burr LLC

Bill Totten

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Consumerism: an Historical Perspective

by Sharon Beder

Culture Change (February 21 2009)

The Pacific Ecologist, whence this article came, provided this editorial note: Sharon Beder explores the history of consumer societies from the 1920s when over-production of goods exceeded demand. Instead of stabilising the economy, reducing working hours, and sharing work around, which would have brought more leisure time for all, industrialists decided to expand markets by promoting consumerism to the working classes. The social decision to produce unlimited quantities of goods rather than leisure, nurtured wastefulness, obsolescence, and inefficiency and created the foundation for our modern consumer culture. People were trained to be both workers and consumers in a culture of work and spend.

Consumption was promoted through advertising as a "democracy of goods" and used to pacify political unrest among workers. With the help of marketers and advertisers exploiting the idea of consumer goods as status symbols, workers were manipulated into being avaricious consumers who could be trusted "to spend more rather than work less". But if we admired wisdom above wealth, and compassion and cooperation above competition, we could undermine the motivation to consume.

The development of consumer societies meant the erosion of traditional values and attitudes of thrift and prudence. Expanding consumption was necessary to create markets for the fruits of rising production. Ironically this "required the nurture of qualities like wastefulness, self-indulgence, and artificial obsolescence, which directly negated or undermined the values of efficiency" and the Protestant Ethic that had originally nurtured capitalism. {1} Advertisers sought to redefine people's needs, encourage their wants and offer solutions to them via goods produced by corporations rather than allowing people to identify and solve their own problems, or to look to each other for solutions. {2}

Consumerism also played a major role in legitimising a social system which rewards businessmen and top corporate executives with incomes many times those of ordinary workers. The consumer society gives ordinary workers some access to the good life. Surrounded by the bounty of their work - the television set, stereo, car, computer, white goods - they are less likely to question conditions of their work, the way it dominates their life, and the lack of power they have as workers. Advertisers constantly tell them these are the fruits of success, that this is what life is all about. To question a system that delivers such plenty would seem perverse.

Over-production and the shorter working week

The growth in production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries required growing markets. This meant expanding the consuming class beyond the middle and upper classes to include the working classes. Production between 1860 and 1920 increased by twelve to fourteen times in the US while the population only increased three times. {3} Supply outstripped demand and problems of scarcity were replaced by problems of how to create more demand.

By the early 1920s, when American markets were reaching saturation, "over-production" and lack of consumer demand were blamed for recession. More goods were being produced than a population with "set habits and means" could consume. {4} There were two schools of thought about how this problem should be solved. One was that work hours should be decreased and the economy stabilised so production met current needs and work was shared around. This view was held by intellectuals, labour leaders, reformers, educators and religious leaders. In America and in Europe, it was commonly believed consumer desires had limits that could be reached and production beyond those limits would result in increased leisure time for all. {5}

The opposing view, mainly held by business people and economists, was over-production could and should be solved by increasing consumption so economic growth could continue. Manufacturers needed to continually expand production so as to increase their profits. Employers were also afraid of such a future because of its potential to undermine the work ethic and encourage degeneracy amongst workers who were unable to make proper use of their time. Increasing production and consumption guaranteed the ongoing centrality of work. {6]

Keen to maintain the importance of work in the face of the push for more leisure, businessmen extolled the virtues and pleasures of work and its necessity in building character, providing dignity and inspiring greatness. Economists too argued that the creation of work was the goal of production. John M Clark, in a review of economic developments, stated: "Consumption is no longer the sole end nor production solely the means to that end. Work is an end in itself." Creating work, and the right to work, he argued, had a higher moral imperative than meeting basic needs. {7}

Manufacturer, H C Atkins, along with president of the National Association of Manufacturers, John E Edgerton, warned a five-day week would undermine the work ethic by giving more time for leisure. {8} If work took up less of the day it would be less important in people's lives. Edgerton, observed: "I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance ... the emphasis should be put on work - more work and better work, instead of upon leisure". {9}

Most businessmen believed shorter hours meant less production, which would limit the growth of America's business enterprise. They argued they could not afford shorter work weeks, that they would become uncompetitive and go bankrupt. They also feared that given extra free time, people would spend it in unsociable ways, turning to crime, vice, corruption and degeneracy and perhaps even radicalism. "The common people had to be kept at their desks and machines, lest they rise up against their betters". {10} And Edgerton, argued "nothing breeds radicalism more quickly than unhappiness unless it is leisure. As long as the people are kept profitably and happily employed there is little danger from radicalism". {11} In the US consumption rates were increasing in the mid-1920s and the "new economic gospel of consumption" gained many adherents. {12} The idea there were limits on consumer wants began to be eclipsed by the idea such wants could be endlessly created. In 1929 the President's Committee on Recent Economic Changes stated: "wants are almost insatiable; one want satisfied makes way for another... by advertising and other promotional devices, by scientific fact-finding, and by carefully pre-developed consumption, a measurable pull on production ... has been created". {13}

The public was urged by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to "end the buyers' strike". {14} However the desire to consume did not come naturally, it had to be learned: "People had to move away from habits of strict thrift toward habits of ready spending". {15} From the 1920s corporations began advertising to the working classes in an effort to break down these old habits of thrift and encourage new consumerist desires. At the same time they sought to counter anti-corporate feelings generated by the conditions of work in their factories. {16}

Hooking work and leisure to consumption

Higher wages helped in this shift from the Protestant ethic of asceticism to one of consumerism that fitted with the required markets for mass production. {17} In boom times, workers were given increased wages rather than increased leisure. Between 1910 and 1929 the average purchasing power of workers in the US increased by forty percent. {18} With these rising wages they bought more and the upward spiral of production and consumption was maintained. In earlier times higher wages might have encouraged workers to work shorter hours, but once workers had been coached into becoming consumers there was little danger of this. With the help of marketers and advertisers, workers could be trusted "to spend more rather than work less". {19}

In this context it was important leisure was not an alternative to work and an opportunity to reflect on life but rather a time for consumption. In this way the forty-hour week, rather than threatening economic growth would foster it. Leisure goods such as radios, phonographs, movies, clothes, books and recreational facilities all benefited from increased leisure time. {20 } At the same time leisure had to be subordinate to work and importantly, a reason to work.

Business people still wanted to limit the reduction of work hours and believed that by 'educating' workers to become consumers, the demand from workers for reduced working hours would also be limited. {21} Manufacturers expanded markets by expanding the range of goods they produced, moving from the basic requirements of living such as food, clothing and building materials to items such as cars and radios that provided entertainment and recreation. {22} US unions fell in with the consumption solution to overproduction in the late 1920s and concentrated on fighting for higher wages. Union leaders promoted increased production and economic growth as a way of increasing wages. It was not till the Great Depression of the 1930s that they again fought for a shorter working week as a solution to
unemployment. {23}

After the Second World War the idea of solving unemployment by reducing working hours disappeared from mainstream thinking. During the war a demand for consumer goods built up and following it workers tended to prefer wage rises to shorter hours. {24} Unions no longer pressed for shorter working hours and workers themselves became wedded to a consumer lifestyle that required long hours to support. Many unions in fact gave up their fight for control of production in favour of a share of the fruits of production and "ever-increasing levels of material well-being for their workers". {25}

The promise of full-employment assuaged fears that long work hours might create unemployment. Leisure became consumer-oriented, revolving round the home with its entertaining and convenience goods and the vacation where workers could enjoy living in luxury for a short time. {26} As Cross noted: "The identification of leisure with consumption won many to hard and steady work in disagreeable jobs". {27}

Juliet Schor noted in her book, The Overworked American that by 1991 productivity in the US had increased steadily from the 1940s: "we could now produce our 1948 standard of living (measured in terms of marketed goods and services) in less than half the time it took in that year. We could actually have chosen the four-hour day, or a working year of six months" ... Instead, workers work more hours now than in 1948 and consume more than twice as much. {28} It was the "social decision to direct industrial innovation toward producing unlimited quantities of goods rather than leisure" that created the foundation for our modern consumer culture, "a culture of work and spend". The movement for more free time for workers and leisure time free of market forces, was defeated by the middle of the 20th century when mass consumer culture took off. {29} The consumer culture, rather than eroding the work ethic, tied people even more closely to working long hours in order to earn the money for their consumer desires.

Consumerism as opiate of the masses

Stuart Ewen in his book Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (2001) showed that advertising for mass consumerism was not only aimed at increasing markets for goods but also at shifting the locus of discontent from people's work to arenas that advertisers could promise would be satisfied by consumption. Their frustrations and unhappiness could then be directed towards buying rather than political protest against working conditions or other elements of industrial society. {30}

Ewen claims that consumerism: "the mass participation in the values of the mass-induced market", was not a natural historical development but an aggressive device of corporate survival". Discontent in the workplace could lead to a challenge to corporate authority but discontent in the consumer sphere provided an incentive to work harder and reflected an acceptance of the values of the capitalist enterprise. {31} Similarly Robert Lane claims in his book on Political Ideology (1962) that: "The more emphasis a society places upon consumption - through advertising, development of new products, and easy installment buying - the more will social dissatisfaction be channeled into intraclass consumption rivalry instead of interclass resentment and conflict ... the more will labor unions focus upon the 'bread and butter' aspects of unionism, as contrasted to its ideological elements". {32}

If people were dependent on the products of the factories they were less likely to be critical of the appalling working conditions within them. The good life attained through this consumption was also compensation for the unpleasantness of work and distracted attention from it. Advertisements were careful not to depict people working in factories. A leading copywriter in the 1920s, Helen Woodward, advised consumption could help sublimate and redirect urges that might otherwise be expressed politically or aggressively. "To those who cannot change their whole lives or occupations", she argued, "even a new line in a dress is often a relief". {33}

Department store merchant Edward Filene, a spokesperson for industrialists in the 1920s and 1930s, spoke frankly about the need for social planning in order to create a consumer culture where industry could "sell to the masses all that it employs the masses to create" and the need for education to train the masses to be consumers in a world of mass production. He argued that consumer culture could unify the nation and, through education, social change could be limited to changes in the commodities that industry produced. {34}

Consumption allows people at the bottom of the social hierarchy to feel they have some measure of access to the good life for all their troubles. The escape from real life provided by leisure activities allows people to continue what might otherwise be a dreary and downtrodden existence. Lisa Macdonald and Allen Myers from Green Left Weekly, claim workers attempt to gain ownership of what they produce and overcome their alienation through consumption: "it is only as purchasers, 'shoppers', that we are treated with the courtesy worthy of a human being". {35} Employers encouraged workers to think of consumerism as the rationale for their work but measures of success were moved from the realm of production and work to the realm of consumption. Advertising messages affected people's aspirations. They portrayed a bounty of consumer goods as the fruits of the American Dream. Rather than aspiring for their children to become leading businessmen or top executives or political leaders, advertisements offered messages such as "Some Day your Boy will own a Buick". {36}

Advertisers also undermined the nineteenth century "culture of character" which was the basis of the myth of the self-made man, someone who succeeded as a result of hard work, morality and discipline. In its place a "culture of personality" evolved which promoted the importance of presentation and appearance, things that advertisers were so helpfully offering to assist with. What mattered in getting ahead and influencing people was the impression a person made on others. Things like their clothes, their home furnishings, their personal cleanliness were all used by others to judge their character. {37} Also advertising and consumerism played a major role in the acceptance of the capitalist vision and its associated inequalities. Roland Marchand in his book Advertising the American Dream (1986) argued advertisers repeatedly used "the parable of the democracy of goods" to sell their products to the middle classes. In this parable, although there was a social hierarchy with wealth concentrated at the top, ordinary people could enjoy the same products and goods that the people at the top did. Joe Blo could drink the same brand of coffee as the wealthiest capitalist. Mary Jane could buy the same soap as the lady with the maid in waiting. The most humble of citizens (although not the poor who were not the targets of these advertisements) could afford to purchase the same quality products as a millionaire. {38}

The social message of the parable of the Democracy of Goods was clear. Antagonistic envy of the rich was unseemly; programs to redistribute wealth were unnecessary. The best things in life were already available to all at reasonable prices. Incessantly and enticingly repeated, advertising visions of fellowship in a Democracy of Goods encouraged Americans to look to similarities in consumption styles rather than to political power or control of wealth for evidence of significant equality. {39}

According to Filene, the process of buying goods was a means by which people were supporting industry and thereby electing the manufacturers, who made the goods, to a government which would satisfy their needs. They were voting industry leaders into positions of leadership in society. In this way "the masses have elected Henry Ford. They have elected General Motors. They have elected the General Electric Company, and Woolworth's and all the other great industrial and business leaders of the day." {40} Not only was the desire for social change displaced by a desire for changes in commodities, but political freedom was equated with consumer choice and political citizenship with participation in the market through consumption. Consumption was promoted as democratising at the very time it was being used to pacify the political unrest of workers. {41} According to well-known sociologist Daniel Bell: "If the American worker has been 'tamed' it has not been through the discipline of the machine, but by the 'consumption society', by the possibility of a better living which his wage, the second income from his working wife, and easy credit all allow". {42}

Production, consumption and status

Vance Packard, in his book The Status Seekers (1959) argued the use of consumer goods as status symbols was a deliberate strategy of advertisers, or "merchants of discontent", who took advantage of the "upgrading urge" people felt. The message that workers could improve their status through consumption was particularly aimed at people who had little chance of raising their status through their work because opportunities for promotion were slim. {43} employers sought to divert the dissatisfaction of workers with the nature of their work into a more personal dissatisfaction that could be fed with consumer goods: "offering mass produced visions of individualism by which people could extricate themselves from the mass". {44}

The advertiser offered workers the possibility of gaining social status through buying goods that were better than their neighbours. With the help of installment plans and credit, they could purchase the signifiers of success even if they weren't achieving success in their workplace. This was not something that came naturally to working people who were, for the main part, resigned to their position in life. According to Packard "they need prodding and 'educating' to desire many of the traditionally higher-class products the mass merchandisers want to move in such vast numbers, such as the electric rotating spits or gourmet foods". {45}

Car manufacturers, particularly, exploited people's desire for status, spending "small fortunes exploring the status meaning of their product". They found, for example that people in housing developments where all the houses looked similar, were most likely to leave their large new cars parked on the street in front of the house rather than in the garage where no-one would see them. Plymouth advertisements pictured a family in front of their car saying "We're not wealthy ... we just look it!" Dodge advertisements featured a man saying to a Dodge car owner "Boy, you must be rich to own a car as big as this!" And Ford advertisements showed the back of one of their cars and stated "let the people behind you know you are ahead of them!" {46}

Such advertising was so successful people began diverting funds from other purchases into the purchase of a car to enhance their status, and by the end of the 1950s Americans "were spending more of their total income on the family chariot than they were in financing their homestead, which housed the family and its car or cars". {47} Not to be outdone home builders and sellers ensured the home became a status symbol that rivalled the motor car.

Chinoy observed consumption provided automobile workers in the 1950s with a way of rationalising their failure to advance in their work: "Advancement has come to mean the progressive accumulation of things as well as the increasing capacity to consume ... If one manages to buy a new car, if each year sees a major addition to the household - a washing machine, a refrigerator, a new living-room suite, now probably a television set - then one is also getting ahead". {48} Rather than question the American Dream, workers would either blame themselves for their failure to live up to it, or find other ways to interpret it.

Such trends were not confined to the US. The consumerism that proliferated in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, spread to other industrialised nations after the Second World War, particularly in the 1950s. {49} In his book on the rise of a consumer society in Australia, Greg Whitwell said: "The ownership of certain sorts of consumer goods, each ranked according to brand names, came to be seen as guides to an individual's income which in turn, so it is believed, said something about his or her inner worth. Consumer goods became external signs, used to give a sense of hierarchy by members of a society characterized by an emphasis on change and on social and geographical mobility". {50}

More pay needed to buy "goods"

In a British study of the working class in the 1950s Ferdynand Zweig found: "a steep rise in acquisitive tendencies and pre-occupation with money in work attitudes". There was far less difference between middle class and working class purchase of consumer durables (cars, white goods, electrical appliances) than previously and class self-identification had come to depend more on factors such as house ownership than type of work. In fact Zweig found workers impatient with questions about class. They were more interested in status as a way of organising the social spectrum. {51}

Increased consumerism led to an increased emphasis on the importance of pay. Many people work so as to earn the money to buy consumer goods and some measure of status that accompanies them. A European study by the Henley Centre in 1991 found "better pay" was the priority for new jobs for seventy per cent of those surveyed, compared with enjoyable work, which was a priority for 58 per cent. {52}

A US study found those who believed "having lots of money" was "extremely important" had gone up to almost two thirds in 1986 from less than half in 1977. It ranked higher than any other of goal in life. {53} Americans born since 1963, those referred to as Generation X, are more likely to agree that "The only really meaningful measure of success is money" than any previous generation. They spend more money on stereos, mobile phones, beepers and cars than older people and are more likely to take a less interesting job if it pays well. {54}

Jimmy Carter, as President of the US noted: "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns". {55} Consumption has become a more important source of self-identity and status than work for many people. Compton Advertising undertook a survey of public attitudes to the economic system in 1974 and found two thirds of those surveyed identified their role in the economic system as that of "consumers and spenders of money" rather than workers or producers. This included one half of those in the labour force. {56}

More recent opinion surveys show that in countries like the US and Japan, "people increasingly measure success by the amount they consume". {57} In a society where people don't know each other very well, appearances are important and social status, though more securely attained through occupation, can be attained with strangers through consumption. When people are uprooted and move to the cities they are strangers to each other. Previously everyone knew one another's business and the status that should be accorded to each person. In an anonymous city a person can adopt a certain lifestyle, clothes, car that is higher up the status ladder than their occupation would indicate, particularly if they are willing to go into debt to do it. Consumption then becomes an indicator of achievement. {58}

The desire to consume is often portrayed as a natural human characteristic that cannot be changed. However it is clear populations have been manipulated into being avaricious consumers. What people really want, more than the multitude of goods on offer, is status. History has shown the determinants of status can change. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable society, then we need to award status to those who are happy with a basic level of comfort rather than those who accumulate possessions. If, as a community, we admired wisdom above wealth and compassion and cooperation above competition, we would be well on the way to undermining the motivation to consume.


This article was first adapted for publication in Pacific Ecologist from Chapter Twelve of the book Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR (2001) by Sharon Beder. Professor Sharon Beder is head of the Science, Technology and Society Programme at the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia. She writes a regular column for Engineers Australia and has written several books including Power Play Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing (2003); The Nature of Sustainable Development (1993). Professor Beder was awarded the 2001 World Technology Award in Ethics.


[1] Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making way for modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), page 158.

[2] Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), pages 70, 108.

[3] David J. Cherrington, The Work Ethic: Working Values and Values that Work (New York: AMACON, 1980), page 37.

[4] Gary Cross, Time and Money (London: Routledge, 1993), page 38; Rodney Clapp, 'Why the Devil Takes Visa', Christianity Today, Vol 40, No 11 (1996).

[5] Cross, note 7, pages 7-8, 28.

[6] Ibid, pages 7, 9, 39; Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), pages 42, 67.

[7] Ibid, pages 62-3.

[8] Paul Bernstein, American Work Values: Their Origin and Development (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), page 157.

[9] Cross, note 7, page 16.

[10] Juliet B Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure (USA: BasicBooks, 1991), page 74.

[11] Quoted in Hunnicutt, note 9, page 41.

[12] Hunnicutt, note 9, page 42.

[13] Quoted in Cross, note 7, page 41.

[14] Quoted in Ibid, page 38.

[15] Clapp, note 7.

[16] Ewen, note 5, page 19.

[17] Ibid, page 29.

[18] Cross, note 7, page 7.

[19] Hunnicutt, note 9, page 43.

[20] Ibid, page 45.

[21] Ibid pages 46-7.

[22] Robert Eisenberger, Blue Monday: The Loss of the Work Ethic in America (New York: Paragon House, 1989), page 11.

[23] Hunnicutt, note 9, page 79.

[24] Cross, note 7, page 85.

[25] Schor, note 15, page 78; Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr, 'Putting the Work Ethic to Work', Society, Vol 21, No 2 (1984), page 59.

[26] Cross, note 7, page 155.

[27] Ibid, page 153.

[28] Schor, note 15, page 2.

[29] Cross, note 7, pages 5, 9.

[30] Ewen, note 5, pages 43-5.

[31] Ibid, pages 54, 109.

[32] Robert E Lane, Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does (New York: The Free Press, 1962), page 80.

[33] Ewen, note 5, pages 77-8, 85-6.

[34] Ibid, page 54.

[35] L Macdonald and A Myers, 'Malign Design', New Internationalist (November 1998), page 21.

[36] Marchand, note 4, pages 162, 222.

[37] Ibid, pages 209-10.

[38] Ibid, page 218.

[39] Ibid, pages 220, 222.

[40] Quoted in Ewen, note 5, page 92.

[41] Ibid, pages 89, 91.

[42] Daniel Bell, 'Work and Its Discontents (1956)', in A R Gini and T J Sullivan (editors), It Comes with the Territory: An Inquiry Concerning Work and the Person (New York: Random House, 1989), pages 122-123.

[43] Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behaviour in America (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1961), pages 269-70.

[44] Andrew Hornery, 'Family Pack aims for the children', Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1998, page 45.

[45] Packard, note 84, page 271.

[46] Ibid, pages 273-4.

[47] Ibid, page 274.

[48] Ely Chinoy, Automobile Workers and the American Dream, 2nd edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinios Press, 1992), page 126.

[49] Stewart Lansley, After the Gold Rush: The Trouble with Affluence: 'Consumer Capitalism' and the Way Forward (London: Century Business Books, 1994), page 85.

[50] Greg Whitwell, Making the Market: The Rise of Consumer Society (Melbourne: McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1989), page 7.

[51] Ferdynand Zweig, The New Acquisitive Society (Chichester: Barry Rose, 1976), pages 15, 21-2, 26-7.

[52] Cited in Lansley, note 90, page 136.

[53] Alan Thein Durning, How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, edited by Linda Starke, Worldwatch Environmental Alert Series (London: Earthscan, 1992), page 34.

[54] Dan Zevin and Carolyn Edy, 'Boom Time for Gen X', US News and World Report (20 October 1997)

[55] Quoted in Thomas H Naylor, William H Willimon and Rolf Osterberg, The Search for Meaning in the Workplace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), page 69.

[56] Compton Advertising, 'National Survey on the American Economic System', (New York: The Advertising Council, 1974), page 17

[57] Durning, note 94, page 22.

[58] Bell, note 71, page 68.

Bill Totten

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Galloping With Blinkers On

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (March 25 2009)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

Making sense of history as it happens is a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without any idea of the picture the puzzle will show. A blue piece with an edge, a speckled one with an odd bulge on one side, and hundreds of others sit on the table and taunt the imagination. Most solutions come together a piece at a time; still, it sometimes happens that two or more pieces from different parts of the puzzle can reveal a pattern that allows some large portion of the puzzle to be assembled in a few minutes.

A moment a little like that happened earlier this week, when two seemingly unrelated news squibs showed up in my inbox. The first was an article about a small company in New Zealand, EcoInnovation Ltd, that builds micro-hydro systems - for those of my readers who don't speak appropriate tech fluently, this means a hydroelectric system meant to generate power from very modest amounts of running water. Less popular than wind and solar, mostly because sun and wind are more widely distributed than streams, micro-hydro has nonetheless had a presence in the alternative energy scene since the Seventies. What sets the EcoInnovation systems apart from others, though, is that the generators used in them are salvaged washing machine motors.

I'm not sure how many people realize that an electric motor and an electric generator are the same thing, a device for turning electricity and rotary motion into one another: take an electric motor and make something else spin the shaft, and it becomes a generator. This is what the people at EcoInnovation did. It's not exactly a new idea; a book in my collection of Seventies appropriate- tech manuals, Cloudburst, provides plans for a micro- hydro plant built of salvaged parts along similar lines. Still, this sort of salvage-based manufacture of micro-hydro systems is an excellent way to minimize resource inputs for the production of clean, locally produced electricity - something that has been on many people's minds of late, and for good reason - and so far, aside from this one small company, it's been almost completely neglected.

The second news story was a puff piece about the latest efforts to make a reactor that will sustain nuclear fusion for more than a few milliseconds. Unlike micro-hydro, nuclear fusion will be familiar to all my readers, whether the words make them think of thermonuclear warheads, the long litany of past attempts to build a working fusion reactor, or the sole functioning fusion reactor in this solar system - the one that rises in the east every morning. The news story trotted out the usual rhetoric about limitless clean energy, and repeated the ritual assurance that given adequate funding, fusion reactors will solve the energy crisis in another few decades.

The fact that they were saying the same thing in the 1950s somehow failed to make it into the story. Nor did the reporter mention just how many billions of dollars have been spent over the last sixty-odd years chasing the fusion dream. Nearly all of it has pursued a single broad approach to fusion reactor design. The science books of my childhood had brightly colored pictures showing exactly that design: heavy hydrogen, heated to superhot temperatures, would be squeezed by powerful magnetic fields until the nuclei fused, releasing heat that would produce steam to drive turbines.

With a variety of modifications and refinements, that's still the basic model behind most of today's fusion-reactor projects. Yet fusion power remains a daydream; despite vast sums in research grants and government subsidies every year, the fusion power research community has never managed anything more than brief and self-terminating bursts of fusion, releasing rather less energy than they took to produce. Leading physicists in the field have admitted that it's quite possible that commercial fusion power is unattainable using the current model, and the net energy from so energy- and resource-intensive an energy source shows every sign of being far into negative numbers; still, the money flows in.

Note the contrast in these two news items. One details a simple, efficient, and readily available energy source, using proven technology, with wide applicability - every spot that used to run a water wheel in the 19th century, if it hasn't been flooded by a dam since then, is a micro- hydro site, and there are plenty of surplus electric motors around - to provide renewable energy for the difficult years ahead. The other story details the fantastically costly pursuit of what is arguably a failed model of fusion power generation, one that has yet to put a single watt into the power grid, and may well never do so. Care to guess which one of these approaches will receive billions of dollars of additional funding and the attention of major research teams next year, and which one will remain in the hands of a small entrepreneurial firm and its customer base?

This contrast offers a glimpse at one of the key factors in the collapse of complex human systems. It's a commonplace of history that institutions of all kinds - governments, businesses, religious organizations, whole civilizations, and more - get locked into strategies that, at least in hindsight, can be seen as hopelessly self-defeating, and stay the course all the way down to collapse. No doubt archeologists of the future, hacking their way with machetes through a post-global-warming jungle to reach the lost city of Flint, Michigan, will wonder why CEOs shackled their companies' survival to rapidly depleting fossil fuels, instead of pursuing electric cars and alternatives to the automobile, and then compounded their folly by setting up lending agencies that became hopelessly entangled in the delusional economics of what may still, even in that distant time, be remembered as the largest financial bubble in human history. Standing amid the overgrown ruins of some ancient assembly line, they will surely ask themselves: why did nobody see the obvious consequences?

Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work on the rise and fall of civilizations has been discussed in these essays several times, offered a useful way of thinking about this dysfunction. He argued that civilizations rise under the leadership of a creative minority, who are able to offer a vision of human destiny and possibility strong enough to overcome the inertia of tradition and launch a new phase of social integration. As long as the creative minority continues to come up with successful responses to the challenges and curve balls the world throws at every human society, the society they lead continues to expand. Sooner or later, though, the creative minority becomes so deeply committed to some particular set of solutions that it keeps on trying to apply those solutions, whether or not they actually fit the challenges. At that point the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, ruling its society by increasingly blatant coercion rather than inspiring it with the force of its ideas. Unsolved problems pile up as failed responses are repeated on an ever more lavish scale, and the death spiral of decline and fall begins.

It's a pity that Toynbee didn't live long enough to see the current economic debacle, as there has rarely been a better example of the phenomenon he outlined. Consider the way that nobody in American political life has anything to offer in the face of economic crisis but more attempts to reinflate a bubble like the ones that popped in 1987, 2002, and 2008. All sides are declaiming about economic growth, at a time when further economic growth in the current sense of that phrase is the last thing America needs. A sane strategy would seek economic contraction instead - a massive downsizing of the banking and finance sector until our annual production of debt has some relationship to our annual production of goods and nonfinancial services; a steady decrease in energy use across the board until US energy use per capita equals that of Europe, about a third of the present US level; the systematic rebuilding of American manufacturing and agriculture protected by trade barriers, which would require Americans to pay prices reflecting American wages for their consumer goods; and so forth.

Conventional wisdom insists that any such program would be rejected by the American people. I'm not at all sure that that's true; many people in the working class, I suspect, would be quite willing to accept higher prices for consumer goods in exchange for a return of manufacturing jobs and a sustained drop in housing costs. Still, nothing of the kind will be proposed at any level where the necessary decisions could be made, because such a program flies in the face of the set of economic solutions that Americans from the middle class on up want to apply - even though those "solutions", which amount to flooding imaginary wealth into a broken system, have themselves become a major cause of the crises shaking our economy to its core.

One of the telltale signs that a creative minority has become a dominant minority is that failure no longer carries any penalty. Consider what happened to executives and middle management in the last quarter century or so when their actions, as so often happened, drove their companies into the ground. The number of them who had trouble finding new jobs was vanishingly small; members of a well-networked class that generally takes care of its own, they were shielded from the consequences of their own incompetence. Even those who openly looted failing companies rarely suffered any penalty, since this has long been standard practice in American corporate life; the cult of the bonus and the plundering of business assets to line the pockets of executives reaches far beyond the handful of financial firms where it has recently become infamous.

In much the same way, three generations of physicists have been able to count on lavish grant money for research pursuing a failed model of fusion power, and the fact that none of this immense investment has brought the world noticeably closer to working fusion power plants has done nothing to slow the torrent of government largesse. Meanwhile surplus washing machine motors, and a thousand other useful resources and practicable responses, pile up unregarded.

And that, dear reader, is why I tend to roll my eyes when people insist, as they often do, that the world's industrial societies will surely get themselves out of the peak oil trap once they devote resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses to the problem. In theory, they might still be able to do so; in practice, this won't happen, because devoting resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses is precisely the missing piece that can't be supplied. When failure is no longer penalized, and losing strategies are the only options admitted to discussion, changing course becomes the least likely possibility; the tighter the blinkers, the more likely that the horse will keep on galloping straight ahead, even if the road leads straight off a cliff.

This is one reason why it seems crucial to me to suggest that any real response to the crisis of industrial society has to begin with individuals, families, and local communities, where constructive change might actually be possible; and to argue against imposing any grand strategy or one-size-fits-all plan on the ventures that result. It's worth noting that some places have good sites for micro-hydro installations and plenty of spare washing machine motors, but others do not; equally, any other solution you care to name is likely to be well suited to some contexts and very poorly suited to others. It's in dealing with these differences - in grappling with the messy, local, everyday details of life in a contracting economy and a deindustrializing society, with blinders off and a pace slowed to the point that the surroundings become more than a blur - that effective responses are most likely to emerge.


John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (2006) and The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Bill Totten

Woodchips With Everything

Here comes the latest utopian catastrophe: the plan to solve climate change with biochar

by George Monbiot

The Guardian (March 24 2009)

Whenever you hear the word miracle, you know there's trouble just around the corner. But however many times they lead to disappointment or disaster, the newspapers never tire of promoting miracle cures, miracle crops, miracle fuels and miracle financial instruments. We have a bottomless ability to disregard the laws of economics, biology and thermodynamics when we encounter a simple solution to complex problems. So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the new miracle. It's a low-carbon regime for the planet which makes the Atkins Diet look healthy: woodchips with everything.

Biomass is suddenly the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. Its advocates claim that it will become the primary source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport fuel (cellulosic ethanol) and aviation fuel (bio-kerosene). Few people stop to wonder how the planet can accommodate these demands and still produce food and preserve wild places. Now an even crazier use of woodchips is being promoted everywhere (including in the Guardian) {1}. The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet's surface into charcoal.

Sorry, not charcoal. We don't call it that any more. Now we say biochar. The idea is that wood and crop wastes are cooked to release the volatile components (which can be used as fuel), then the residue - the charcoal - is buried in the soil. According to the magical thinkers who promote it, the new miracle stops climate breakdown, replaces gas and petroleum, improves the fertility of the soil, reduces deforestation, cuts labour, creates employment, prevents respiratory disease and ensures that when you drop your toast it always lands butter side up. (I invented the last one, but give them time).

They point out that the indigenous people of the Amazon created terras pretas (black soils) by burying charcoal over hundreds of years. These are more fertile than the surrounding soils, and the carbon has stayed where they put it. All we need to do is to roll this out worldwide and the world's problems - except, for the time being, the toast conundrum - are solved. It takes carbon out of circulation, reducing atmospheric concentrations. It raises crop yields. If some of the carbon is produced in efficient cooking stoves, it reduces the smoke in people's homes and means they have to gather less fuel, curtailing deforestation {2}.

This miracle solution has suckered people who ought to know better, including the earth systems scientist James Lovelock {3}, the eminent climate scientist Jim Hansen {4}, the author Chris Goodall and the climate campaigner Tim Flannery {5}. At the UN climate negotiations beginning in Bonn on Sunday, several national governments will demand that biochar is eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial stimulus required to turn this into a global industry {6}. Their proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to save it.

In his otherwise excellent book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet (2008), Chris Goodall abandons his usual scepticism and proposes that we turn 200 million hectares of "forests, savannah and croplands" into biochar plantations. Thus we would increase carbon uptake, by grubbing up "wooded areas containing slow-growing (that is, natural forest) and planting "faster-growing species" (7). This is environmentalism?

But that's just the start of it. Carbonscape, a company which hopes to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting 930 million hectares {8}. The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4 billion hectares {9}.

The arable area of the United Kingdom is 5.7 million hectares, or one 245th of Read's figure. China has 104 mllion hectares of cropland. The US has 174 million. The global total is 1.36 billion {10}. Were we to follow Read's plan, we would either have to replace all the world's crops with biomass plantations, causing instant global famine, or we would have to double the cropped area of the planet, trashing most of its remaining natural habitats. Read was one of the promoters of first-generation liquid biofuels{11, 12}, which played a major role in the rise in the price of food last year, throwing millions into malnutrition. Have these people learnt nothing?

Of course they claim that everything can be reconciled. Peter Read says that the new plantations can be created across "land on which the occupants are not engaged in economic activity" {13}. This means land used by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers and anyone else who isn't producing commodities for the mass market: poorly-defended people whose rights and title can be disregarded. Both Read and Carbonscape speak of these places as "degraded lands". We used to call them unimproved, or marginal. Degraded land is the new code for natural habitat someone wants to destroy.

Goodall is even more naive. He believes we can maintain the profusion of animals and plants in the rainforests he hopes to gut by planting a mixture of fast-growing species, rather than a monoculture{14}. As the Amazon ecologist Philip Fearnside has shown, a mixture does "not substantially change the impact of very large-scale plantations from the standpoint of biodiversity" {15}.

In their book Pulping the South (1996), Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann show what has happened in the 100 million hectares of industrial plantations planted around the world so far{16}. Aside from trashing biodiversity, tree plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when the land is ploughed for planting (which means the loss of soil carbon), exhausted nutrients and required so many pesticides that in some places the run-off has poisoned marine fisheries.

In Brazil and South Africa, tens of thousands of people have been thrown off their lands, often by violent means, to create plantations. In Thailand the military government that came to power in 1991 sought to expel five million people. Forty thousand families were dispossessed before the junta was overthrown. In many cases plantations cause a net loss of employment. Working conditions are brutal, often involving debt peonage and repeated exposure to pesticides.

As Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch point out, many of the claims made for biochar don't stand up {17}. In some cases charcoal in the soil improves plant growth; in others it suppresses it. Just burying carbon bears little relationship to the complex farming techniques of the Amazon Indians who created terras pretas. Nor is there any guarantee that most of the buried carbon will stay in the soil. In some cases charcoal stimulates bacterial growth, causing carbon emissions from soils to rise. As for reducing deforestation, a stove that burns only part of the fuel is likely to increase, not decrease, demand for wood. There are plenty of other ways of eliminating household smoke which don't involve turning the world's forests to cinders.

None of this is to suggest that the idea has no virtues; simply that they are outweighed by hazards, which the promoters have either overlooked or obscured. Nor does this mean that charcoal can't be made on a small scale, from straw or brashings or sewage that would otherwise go to waste. But the idea that biochar is a universal solution which can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Backwards. We clutch at straws (and other biomass) in our desperation to believe that there is an easy way out.



2. Chris Goodall, 2008. Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. GreenProfile, London.


4. James Hansen et al, 2008. Target Atmospheric Carbon dioxide: Where Should Humanity Aim?


6. This is the AWG-LCA meeting at the UNFCCC negotiations.

7. Pages 226-227.


9. Peter Read, 2008. Biosphere carbon stock management: addressing the threat of abrupt climate change in the next few decades: an editorial essay. Climatic Change. DOI 10.1007/s10584-007-9356-y


11. Peter Read, 20th October 2004. Good news on climate change. Abrupt Climate Change Strategy Workshop. Press Release.

12. See

13. Peter Read, 2008, ibid.

14. Page 228.

15. Philip M Fearnside, 1993 'Tropical Silvicultural Plantations asa Means of Sequestering Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide', manuscript, Manaus. Quoted in Pulping the South (see below).

16. This book is available online at

17. Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker, February 2009. Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction?

Copyright (c) 2006

Bill Totten