by John Atcheson
The first thing to say about The Crash Course is that it is an impressive work of scholarship. It is reminiscent of Guns, Germs and Steel in terms of the scope and breadth of knowledge brought to bear by the author in support of his thesis — which is basically that we’re headed for hard times unlike anything humanity has seen.
The second is that it contains a few fundamental flaws.
The third is that you should read it anyway. His thesis is more than plausible; his research is meticulous; and no matter how much you think you know about sustainability, you will walk away from The Crash Course wiser, if sadder.
Martenson is an intellectual omnivore. From peak oil to finance to economics, he bores deeply into his chosen topics — without being boring.
His lens on the future centers on the three E’s: Economics, Energy and Environment, viewed through the remorseless calculus of exponential growth. Let’s look at each in turn, although it is important to understand that for Martenson, it is the confluence of forces between the three that make the future so challenging.
We’ll start with his take on economics. For Martenson, exponentially increasing debt is the defining economic reality. And indeed, his characterization of where we are today, projected into the future, paints a picture of inevitable collapse.
Compounding the debt conundrum is the fact that currency, which economists treat as if it were real, tangible wealth, is — as Martenson puts it — merely “… a claim on wealth.” In short, money is not wealth. Worse, it can grow indefinitely in a finite world. But if faith in currency erodes, then it can no longer serve as a surrogate for real wealth and the entire construct can — and will — collapse. And Martenson believes that exponentially exploding debt makes the crash inevitable.
He also notes that the books have been cooked in ways that could further undermine faith in our currency. Take inflation, for example. Since the late 1970’s, a series of changes in how we measure it — things like tossing out food and energy from the index, or economic subterfuges such as the “substitution effect,” “hedonics,” and adjusted weighting of goods and services — have worked to systematically understate inflation. Here’s Martenson on the effect of this economic legerdemain:
The social costs of this self-deception are enormous. For starters, if inflation were calculated the way it used to be, Social Security payments … would be 70% higher than they currently are.
He identifies similar economic chicanery used in our calculation of GDP. Clearly, if these indicators are the instrument panel for understanding the economy, then we’re flying blind.
Altogether, he makes a strong case for the inevitability of economic collapse. To read The Crash Course, one would think that it’s all been predetermined, as certain as it is inexorable.
Enter flaw number one.
Martenson dismisses the possibility of changing our policies in ways that might mitigate debt, mostly on the basis that more prudent policies such as tax increases and cost cuts are politically impossible, and the size of our debt is unprecedented.
But political winds change. Our enslavement to debt remains a choice, not a life sentence. There are viable solutions. For example, the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently released their Budget for All which would balance the budget by 2021 while preserving Social Security and the social safety net and investing in job-creating, prosperity-inducing infrastructure projects, using policies that are individually popular with the majority of Americans. Only the combination of media malfeasance and the Democrats’ complete inability to communicate keep these kinds of strategies from being seriously considered.
In short, there are solutions to our economic problems out there, but Martenson is making an assumption that we will not use them.
Which brings us to energy.
Martenson believes energy plays a critical role not simply by providing goods and services, but in the far more fundamental role of holding chaos at bay. Complex systems need energy to retain order. Not enough energy means chaos — or at least a new complex system which results in a completely different equilibrium. In short, the economy is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, particularly the second law, and the inevitable battle with entropy it implies.
Our economy, then, is an open, complex system that has been enabled and shaped by a plentiful supply of fossil fuels in general, and oil in particular. Their availability and energy density is what has made the prosperous world we live in possible.
Martenson then goes on to document peak oil (and peak coal as well as other resources). Here again, his research is exhaustive, complete, and compelling. And here again, he introduces the power of exponential growth, this time in demand, to give us a sense of how little time we have left to rely on fossil fuels.
Net energy — what some call energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) — is inevitably declining and as it declines, the amount of real energy yielded per barrel or ton declines with it.
The decrease in net energy is a function of “highgrading” — exploiting the richest, most concentrated and easily accessible resources first and then proceeding to lower-grade resources that are more difficult to find, and more expensive to recover and use.
To Martenson, this is yet another blow to the kind of social and economic structure we’ve come to rely on. Society will encounter the consequences of exponentially exploding debt and the need to make massive increases in the amount of wealth we spend on energy simultaneously. Worse, even with massive investments, we will have less energy to rely on.
He is not sanguine about renewable energy’s ability to fill in the gap. He even has a chapter entitled, Why Technology Can’t Fix This, again invoking the explosive increases in demand, the lower energy density of renewables, and the fact that they are intermittent.
Finally, he notes that historically, energy transitions — wood to coal; coal and steam to oil and internal combustion — have taken decades to accomplish.
Enter Flaw number two.
Towards the end of the book, he acknowledges that there is substantial potential to increase the efficiency with which we use energy. But in his discussion on energy he fails to note how efficiency can be used to lower costs and buy us the one thing we need most: time to manage a transition. Moreover, he understates the potential for the most bountiful source of energy of all, the sun. Even with today’s technology we could generate more than 20 times the energy we now use from vacant, unused land in the world’s deserts. Throw in improvements in solar technology, end use efficiencies, and improved energy density in storage systems, and solar energy is clearly capable of providing more than enough energy to fuel a modern, prosperous society for as long as the sun burns. And with costs coming down, it can do so at affordable rates.
And with electric cars becoming more viable and more widely accepted, wind and solar can directly displace oil. EIA notes that the average car stays on the road for 15 years, so even this transition could be made relatively quickly. It wouldn’t be easy. It wouldn’t be cheap. But it is possible.
Here again, what Martenson presents as essentially a factually determined outcome is, in reality, a choice. He may well be right in the outcome he’s projecting, but it won’t be because it was inevitable. It will be because we failed to make the right choices.
The third E, environment: Martenson looks at the environment primarily as a source of natural capital.
And just as he did for peak oil, he outlines the remorseless effect of growth on finite resources. As with fossil fuels, the reality of highgrading will mean that both the cost and availability of obtaining new resources will go up and up. The consumption of key industrial minerals, the availability of water and viable soils, the evisceration of fish stock, the depletion of oxygen-producing phytoplankton — on and on the list goes — is painstakingly documented. The message is clear: time is short. We’re at DEFCON 2, and the clock is ticking.
Flaw number three.
Martenson all but ignores the effect of using the environment as a sink — as the repository of the wastes that inevitably result from our battle with entropy. And while he could be accused of overstating the inevitability of the adverse consequences of the first two Es, his choice to look at the environment mainly as a stock of resources means he barely addresses the impact of global warming. In fact, it is mentioned only once, in a section entitled “Convergence,” as a “…potential demand on our limited budgets.”
Martenson has explained elsewhere that he avoided discussions of climate change because the topic is controversial and addressing it could detract from his message. But for a book that purports to be based on facts and consequences, running from global warming because a few paid deniers have managed to scare up a faux controversy seems … well … counterfactual.
On the scale of things, it’s like watching for rocks in the trail, while a grizzly charges. As The Sterns Review pointed out, the consequences of global warming could erode global economic output by 20%, and this was based on assumptions in the IPCC’s 2007 assessment which have been shown to be unrealistically conservative.
The book concludes with a roadmap that tells us where we’re heading and why we don’t want to go there. And Martenson also provides us with some scenarios that will give us insight into how his forecasted future might unfold and what we can do to prepare ourselves to live in it. As with Bill Mckibben’s Eaath, a viable future will demand more devotion to values, and less to stuff; more capacity for self-reliance and a greater investment in living at the community scale.
So what are we to make of The Crash Course and it’s sobering message?
Some will dismiss it as just another doom and gloom diatribe — more informed than most, but a diatribe, nevertheless. Others will treat it as fact.
In reality it is neither.
Perhaps the best answer comes from Martenson himself. Way in the back of the book, he notes that we have the technologies we need to “… turn this story around.” And the obvious conclusion from this observation is that most of the problems he so eloquently and comprehensively outlines have the same root cause — in the end, we have a socio-political problem.
And this may be the book’s most serious flaw: accepting the current dysfunctional political environment as a fait accompli.
He may well be right. But the capacity for change is fueled by hope, and by presenting our future as all but inevitable, he runs the risk of dashing our hopes and foreclosing on our ability to make the right choices. One is reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge’s plea to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
Ironically, the mega-problem he ignores — global warming — is the one that has ventured into the land of irrevocable consequences, while the ones he focuses on have a slim margin in which we may yet act.
And as we begin to deal with a planet dominated by an essentially alien climate, we will need to act, and act in ways that are unprecedented in scope and speed. A little more emphasis on the rapidly dwindling opportunity we have to make the right choices in our current economic, energy, and environmental policies could have made this book a clarion call inspiring those needed changes, rather than a survival guide for dealing with our failure to make them.
But it is hard to argue with Martenson’s conclusions. In the end, we are subject to this fundamental fact that infinite growth in a finite world is unsustainable.
The Crash Course, despite its flaws, posits our most plausible future. It is an important book that adds even more evidence to the growing body of knowledge that tells us we’re on a collision course with reality, and that in the end — if we don’t change course — the crash will be mean, nasty, and brutish.
John Atcheson has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks. He is working on his own novel about climate change.