"A brave book by a smart person with a masterful command of economic theory."—Publisher's Weekly
How should we act and think economically in the world as the era of cheap oil comes to an end? The Approaching Great Transformation begins to answer this massive question, focusing on the people and communities already at work on the transition: energy descent pioneers in the UK and the US educating their communities about the road ahead, small enterprises defying traditional “profit” in favor of permanence and sustainability, and cities preparing for a post carbon future.
Highlighting the work of thinkers like John Ruskin and E. F. Schumacher, Magnuson here builds on his previous book, Mindful Economics.
Introduction: ANOTHER SEA CHANGE
Every epic historical transformation began with economic turbulence and collapse. As a general rule, when the economic foundation of a society is significantly disrupted, it destabilizes everything else. Everything begins to change. The Roman Empire finally crumbled when its Mediterranean system of conquest, slavery, and trade was thrown into chaos by the Saracens who launched their invasions from northern Africa. And the feudal system of the Middle Ages was brought down when its agrarian economy was ruined by plague epidemics and wars over religion. Today another historic sea change is beginning to take form and the underlying cause, again, is a major economic disruption. Though this time it will not be caused by invading and conquering armies or plague epidemics, the disruption will be a global decline in the availability of oil—the paramount and finite energy source that has supported all the major industrial systems for the last century. As resource limitation and climate change are beginning to shake the foundation of our entire way of life, another historic sea change is in the making.
Our current global system of production and commerce is driven by an imperative for endless growth and expansion. But limited supplies of oil and virtually all other resources are binding this expansion like a rope tightening around every economy in the world. Yet in a kind of blind and desperate attempt to keep charging forward with more economic growth, governments nearly everywhere are plunging themselves into massive and unsustainable debt. Whether it smashes into the wall of resource limitations and debt fatigue, or makes a shift away from business as usual, our global economy is going to change.
As we begin to feel these changes we will be forced to reexamine what we consider to be the good life. Many of us in the so-called developed world have high expectations for our career choices, our levels of income, the things we want to buy, and all the other accoutrements of a plentiful lifestyle. But this is all beginning to change. The cause of this change is a fairly simple but sobering reality: the resource base of our planet can no longer sustain it. When I refer to a declining resource base here, I am not only talking about oil, though oil is the big one. Other fossil fuels, water, topsoil, basic metals, and virtually every other resource available to us are being consumed to exhaustion. We often say that our desire for high material standards of living is to provide for our families—our children. The cruel irony is that our children and grandchildren will be the first generations to experience the full brunt of the economic and ecological damage we are doing now. That is, unless we do something now to change that.
In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
(2004, 2011), evolutionary psychologist Jared Diamond chronicles an impressive list of examples of how humans have a penchant for self-destruction. Though his examples are taken from different places and at different times in history, they all basically follow a consistent pattern in which entire societies collapse as a result of their destruction of the environmental habitat that would have otherwise sustained them. But we don’t have to follow this pattern. We are an evolving species and we can learn from the lessons of history. We have conscious awareness and the ability to be proactive and possibly shape the direction of this historic sea change toward something better. This would be our lasting contribution—our great transformation.
The choices we make today as we adapt to mounting scarcity may be the most important historical events of the 21st century. We can choose to be forward thinking and work actively toward positive changes in a spirit of celebration and make this transformation in ways that are healthy, ecologically sound, economically stable, and just. or, we can choose to be complacent, to continue treating our world as an infinite resource pipeline and an infinite waste dump, to brace ourselves for endless wars over resources, and to trudge through one debilitating crisis after another, pushing all of humanity through a long historical period of decline—a descent into a kind of Dark Ages of the third millennium. This would be a tragic downfall for humankind, but the ultimate cause of our downfall would not be the crises themselves. The cause would be our refusal to deal with the obvious fact that the oil Age—the age of seemingly infinite abundance—is coming to an end.
Excerpted from The Approaching Great Transformation by Joel Magnuson; foreword by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Copyright © 2013 by Joel Magnuson. Excerpted by permission of Seven Stories Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.