I recently conducted this interview with The Wealth of Nature author John Michael Greer. he provided some truly interesting and illuminating answers. Happy he took the time to share with us! Here’s the interview:
1. What inspired you to write The Wealth of Nature?
As a writer and blogger in the field of peak oil, I realized some time ago that mainstream economists didn’t get the implications of resource depletion. Really, that’s an understatement; mainstream economists very often insist, sometimes with quite some heat, that resource depletion is irrelevant and that a healthy economy can always, by definition, come up with a replacement for any resource that runs short; their arguments have been rehashed endlessly by critics of peak oil. Mind you, these are the same mainstream economists who insisted in 1999 that tech stocks were undervalued, and who claimed in 2006 that skyrocketing housing prices weren’t a sign of a speculative bubble. This doesn’t exactly lend credibility to their claims about natural resources.
Between 2003 and 2011, the price of oil increased from an average of $27.69 a barrel to an average so far of more than $91 a barrel. According to mainstream economics, that should have produced a flood of new oil supplies entering the market, as production responded to the law of supply and demand. That hasn’t happened; oil production has been stuck in a bumpy plateau since 2004, while prices have soared. What that means is that economics as currently practiced has lost sight of a crucial fact: when the laws of economics come into conflict with the laws of physics and geology, the laws of economics lose. It was the realization that the failure to grasp this fact has to be addressed that drove the research that resulted in The Wealth of Nature.
2. Do you think we’re moving into a place where we will base our economy on the integral value of ecology more? Or is it still unclear?
For the last three hundred years, since the first crude steam engines made it possible for people in the world’s industrial nations to extract energy from the world’s fossil fuel reserves, the political and economic leaders in those nations have labored under the delusion that it’s possible to base an economy on anything but an ecological foundation. As we reach the end of the age of cheap energy, that delusion is going to be outgrown, one way or another. We can do it the smart way, by recognizing that the historically brief age of abundant fossil fuel was an anomaly, and that as fossil fuels deplete to the point that they’re no longer economically meaningful, we need to pay attention to the cycles of nature as the foundation of all economic activity. We can also do it the stupid way, by running headfirst into hard planetary limits we think we’re too clever to encounter, and spending the next few centuries in a desperate struggle to save some part of what was gained in the age of cheap energy. One way or another, though, we’re going to make that transition; we might as well be proactive, and do it the smart way.
3. Who are the leaders in economic and ecological sciences you look up to or have built your work off of?
The most important influence on my work in economics, the figure whose ideas shaped The Wealth of Nature, was maverick economist E.F. Schumacher, whose book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered provided me with many of the core insights I developed in my book. Schumacher was a professional economist in the energy field back in the 1950s and 1960s; since he worked in the business world rather than in an academic setting, he didn’t have the liberty to come up with abstract economic notions detached from what happens in the real world — a liberty all too many of today’s economic mavens have used very freely. He analyzed the crucial importance of energy resources to the economy, predicted peak oil decades in advance, and sketched out the foundations of a way of economic thinking that makes sense in an age of ecological limits.
I’ve also been influenced in my economic thinking by Robert Costanza, who’s done some very important work on the importance of nature as a source of economic value, and by Howard Odum’s studies of the energy embodied in economic goods and services. In the field of ecology more generally, I draw heavily on the ecosystem ecology of Eugene Odum.
4. On a personal, individual level, what are your top recommendations for what someone can do to move us towards a more appropriate economic structure or system?
The personal and individual level is where change has to happen first. As the climate change fiasco has demonstrated all too clearly it’s an utter waste of time to demand that the world make changes if individuals — starting with the individuals who are advocating for change — aren’t willing to make those changes in their own lives. We all know the changes that we’re going to have to make in order to live within our means, ecologically speaking; we’re all going to have to use a lot less energy, and a lot fewer goods and services of the kinds that use extravagant amounts of energy. The sooner we start doing that — each of us, individually, in our own lives — the less traumatic it’s going to be for everyone; and those who get started on it soonest will have the easiest time of it. We delude ourselves into thinking that the only alternative to the wildly wasteful lifestyles of the present is some kind of return to the caves; as people begin making significant cuts in their energy use, and discover that it really isn’t that difficult or uncomfortable, that delusion will fade away.
5. Do you have another book or project in the works yet? What are you up to these days now that this book is complete and on the market?
I make my living as a writer, so I always have a couple of books in the works! My next book out will be released in September by Viva Editions; it’s titled Apocalypse Not: A History of the End of Time, and it’s a wry examination of the last three thousand years of claims that the world is about to end, with an eye toward today’s believers in 2012, the Rapture, the Singularity, or what have you. Still in rough form is a project I’ve tentatively titled Green Wizardry: Seventies Appropriate Tech for Today’s Challenges, which is meant to take the best tools of the achievements of the Appropriate Technology movement of the 1970s — the movement that gave us organic gardening, homescale solar technology, recycling, and much more — and put them in the hands of people preparing for the end of the age of cheap oil.
Again, a big thanks to John for these excellent, thoughtful answers!
Jim Newcomer, Transition PDX, Portland, Oregon
The founder of Transition Initiatives, Rob Hopkins, wrote a cheerful disclaimer that focuses us on community as the way through the wrenching changes ahead of us. He wrote:
• if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
• if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
• but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
(For more information, go to http://www.transitionculture.org)
So I would like to suggest that you move beyond the prescription of individual, personal responses. We tried that in the 60’s and 70’s, and it faded as soon as people had children and went to work at regular jobs.
My own observation is that the global human system is governed by the web of large corporate/government organizations, and that they form a scale-free network (Look it up) that won’t change until the shortages of cheap energy fail. Then the large hubs will fail first, followed by intermediates. And finally we will be back in communities learning how to live together and how to supply one another with local goods, beginning with food, health care, and repairs. Without denigrating the need for personal commitment and adjustment to living simply, I want to suggest that the sooner we start work on knitting together our communities, the better.
Thanks for the comment, Jim. Good points
D. G. Bokare
Economists referred to here are those who toe the line of capitalists and industrialists. They are obliged for their studies, research and jobs. How can they say the truth notwithstanding their own understanding about the opposite. Paul Samuelson has rightly called such economists “kept men”. They are the economists who are fully responsible for today’s economic and ecological crises.
“Toe the line”?. I doubt you have ever read Schumacher. His most well-known book, “Small is Beautiful” (sitting in from of me right now)is subtitled “Economics as if People Mattered”, hardly someone “kept” by capitalists. Read the book before you judge the author.