Nafeez Ahmed: Our Systems Are Failing
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award winning 15 year investigative journalist, noted international security scholar, best-selling author and film-maker. He authored The Guardian’s Earth Insight blog and has twice won the prestigious Project Censored Award for outstanding investigative journalism.
In his new book Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Nafeez points out, as we often do here at PeakProsperity.com, that everything in our modern society is connected to energy, and that our pursuit of ever more, ever higher growth is finally colliding with planetary limits. Scarcity and strife will be the dominant trends from here, unless we, as a species, start looking for different ways of living better-suited for a finite world:
The most fascinating thing for me is how so much of what we take for granted becomes questionable as a result of the breakdown we're seeing. When we begin questioning the exponential growth model then we begin questioning the value system driving our material production/consumption. It's not that it hasn’t produced amazing knowledge of our environment and our place in the universe. It's not that there haven’t been a huge amount of amazing technological developments, like the internet which has enabled people to be interconnected in ways that they never were able to before. In a way has paved the way for us to be able to think globally in a way that centuries ago would have never happened.
It's not that everything about this paradigm is bad. It's just that it has very clearly outlasted its usefulness and is now fundamentally responsible for escalating the biophysical rupture that we see happening and manifesting in so many different ways. What that tells me is that we have to grow up as a species. It's an evolutionary moment.
When we apply systems theory to this, when we apply our knowledge of complex adaptive systems and the history of evolution, it does seem to me that it is absolutely clear really that we're at an unprecedented moment. For the first time in human history, we are standing at a point where we need to basically undergo fundamental systemic adaptation. Exactly what that looks like we're still trying to work out. But what is very clear is what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like seeing each other as separate material entities that just fend for themselves and produce and consume to an endless degree. It looks quite different.
The ideas and the values and the ethos of that different approach has been percolating in different civilizations in different ways. There's evidence from indigenous civilizations, from tribal societies, and even from projects that are now being seeded here and now in our current context where people are trying different things. I think we are at a moment where we're rewriting that story and making a new story of what it means to be human.
It's particularly important because when people look at this with fresh eyes, it's very easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness. That's being reflected now with the rise of Trump and everything else. There is this sense of things getting worse. And I think in many ways it is going to get worse before it gets better. All of this is symptomatic of the crisis that is at play.
A question we all need to be able to ask ourselves is To what extent can I make myself useful going forward, building and planting seeds for what comes after this moment?
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Nafeez Ahmed (55m:52s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome everyone to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. And it is February 16, 2017. Now, I nearly always include a Leonardo Da Vinci quote in all of my public speaking events. I have used this twice just in this past week and that quote is “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” And I use that quote because to me it is true. There is nothing that does not connect to everything once you dig far enough. Yet, we live in a nearly context free world, where the Western media usually presents things as if they just emerged out of nowhere or are unconnected to everything else. Worse, our major institutions still operate as if they were still independent in autonomous silos monetary policy conducted without regard for the biosphere. We are going to have infinite exponential growth come hell or high water. Energy policy without any sense of limits and so on.
Well, given all that I could not be more excited for today’s podcast guest. I am often asked who I read, which blogs, which authors, etc. Well, let me tell you that today’s guest is one of the very few sources that I read religiously – every article. Every one. Why? Because he can connect dots and understand the interconnectedness of things like, oh, the economy, energy and the environment. Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award winning 15 year investigative journalist, noted international security scholar, best-selling author and film-maker. He tracks the war on terror in the context of what he calls the crisis of civilization. That is a concept I know people here are already familiar with. He is international editor at The Canary, system shift columnist at Vices Science Magazine, Motherboard, weekly columnist at Middle East Eye and the creator of In Surge Intelligence, a crowd-funded public interest investigative journalism project, which you can find at patreon.com/nafeez.
Previously, Nafeez wrote The Guardian’s Earth Insight blog, which is where I first became aware of him. That was between April of 2013 and July of 2014. And in 2015 Nafeez won the Project Censored Award for outstanding investigative journalism for his Guardian story on the energy politics of the Ukraine crisis. Now imagine that? Connecting energy to politics and policy. How refreshing. And he has got a new book out. It is really a very exciting book. It is entitled Failing States, Collapsing Systems - Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence. Like I said, it is dot connecting and at its finest. Welcome, Nafeez.
Nafeez Ahmed: Thanks very much for that intro, Chris. I really appreciate it.
Chris Martenson: Nafeez, I am already worried about how we are going to run out of time today, because there is so much to discuss with you. So, let’s start here. I was just last week giving a talk at NASA. They are doing – it is a 100 year anniversary. And they are looking forward a 100 years. These are rocket scientists - literally I am talking with people at this Blue Sky planning session. They have driven Mars rovers around. They planned moon shots and missions to Titan and all that. When I get up there and I go here is a chart that shows energy in the economy. It is a straight line, tight connection here is a chart of where we are in the energy story; ergo let’s go to dot free, I see big difficulty in having an exponentially expanding economy function in the future because we can’t depend on – we have come to a very weird period in human history known in the last 60 years where we were exponentially expanding our extraction of fossil fuels. I have to tell you, Nafeez, even with this crowd, about half of them end up tipping their head sideways looking like a dog listening to white noise just like it doesn’t compute. The other half get it and they get very, very concerned. What is your experience in trying to relate what I think is a fairly simple, but somehow very difficult concept for people to wrap their heads around?
Nafeez Ahmed: Yea, I think it is a familiar experience, actually. I mean, what ends up happening a lot is people get locked into this kind of debate around peak oil and it becomes very polarized. It is all about, well, the peak oil has once predicted we would have exponentially increasing oil prices. That didn’t happen. Oil is now cheap, so actually, it is all fine. And then I tried to bring them back to the concept as a return on investment which is something that you have been speaking about for many years. Which, for me, actually, is something that cuts through a lot of the kind of like the polarity in the debate. The needless polarity, in the sense that we all know we are not actually physically running out of oil, but we are running out of high quality oil. And the costs of production are increasing and all of that.
It is interesting to see how people react to that, because on the one hand there is a kind of like you know, some of my readers will kind of be like they are already familiar with some of the ideas and when they engage with this sort of analysis, which focuses more on global net energy, and the way that global energy is declining in terms of the value of energy that we are able to produce now from the fossil fuel system. It is basically going down. They kind of like, there is almost like there are some people who just have a sense of complete disbelief, and they revert to this general technological optimism, which isn’t really founded in anything in particular. It is just we will solve this problem. We have solved all the problems in the past. We will solve this one it is fine. I think the other way of – the other thing that I have seen happening, which is slightly more dangerous though is what is happening from the kind of more liberal, progressive – people who we may have actually felt that we share an understanding that climate change is a reality. We understand that there is a real biophysical crisis going on. But they will say that well, renewable energies are increasing exponentially and that is going to solve the problem. That it is all going to be fine.
And that is I think where you get this – that is where it kind of begins to break down, where the gravity of the kind of – of the decline curve that we are seeing and the fact that we haven’t really got a kind of a plan or a strategy for a viable shift. And of course there are shifts taking place. There is a lot of exciting things happening. There are a lot of exponential technological improvements taking place. Are they producing energy in the same way that we are familiar with on the fossil fuel? No, it is not happening. It is a very different system. And I think that is something which is really – it comes as a shock to a lot of people. And a lot of people who are engaging with my recent work which over the last couple of months or so I have been writing a lot about global energy decline in EROI and stuff like that I noticed that there is a – there really is a – it really does actually hit people. When people finally do engage with the issue they do kind of wonder well, what does this mean. This is really, really difficult issue.
Chris Martenson: Well, it is an absolutely paralyzing issue if you really understand it and so let’s you know, here is some of the data we have gotten recently. First off, there is a huge disinformation campaign, which I think is rooted more in beliefs and hope and optimism than it is hard science. So, one of the things that I struggle with, Nafeez, every year is somewhere around year end. Call it around the holidays – there is a flood of articles that come out that say oh, look at the explosive growth in renewables this year. Costa Rica powered 100% of itself with you know, renewables. I have to chip away at that and say no, no, no there were times when Costa Rica delivered 100% of its electricity, but that is not power. That is a portion of the power story. And there is all this sort of unpacking. And there is constant confusion thrown out there, including you know, here is one I have to debunk every time I talk. America is energy independent now. No, no. That is if we put all the BTUs in one box and then count them as if they are the same. But oil is actually fundamentally different from coal. That level of detail is not really that difficult for me to talk about, but the confusion out there in how easily that confusion spreads speaks more, I think, to the idea that people want to believe that we are clever, we can solve this and there is not a big predicament coming. And what you are talking about and what I try to talk about as well is this idea that once you get down one layer in complexity and you understand that it is the net energy that we run society on, not the total, but the net.
Somehow I feel like there is almost an industry of confusion out there who is working very hard to keep this as muddy as possible or else I – how do we explain the perpetual level of confusion? Are these just untrained journalists or is there a – this American Petroleum Institute actively putting out collateral packages for people to reprint? What is happening here? Why are we this confused here still, do you think?
Nafeez Ahmed: I think this is a really good question because there is a number of things which are going on. On the one hand there is this problem, which I think you and I have addressed it in different ways in our recent careers and in dealing with these issues, which is that we have seen systemic thinking isn’t really happening in a fundamental way in any of our institutions. We have – and you know, to some extent it is to do with the nature of science as it is developed, because sciences has developed in this way of we try to dig deep into things in order to understand how they work. So, we look closer and closer and closer at how things work and what that means is you inevitably end up in disciplinary silos. You got your economists, you got your chemists, you got your physicists. It definitely works in the sense it has produced real knowledge. It has also meant that in terms of understanding how all those different areas are fundamentally connected, we simply don’t have frameworks to actually see how they do connect. And that is something which I think we are seeing as, civilizationally we don’t have a civilizational framework around it in a knowledge framework in order to make sense of the interconnections. Which is why, when you do say something like everything is interconnected, it sounds so radical and revolutionary and it is also kind of obvious when you think about it. I think that is why it is such a powerful thing to tell people and so provocative. It is so within our cultures, within our institutions. We don’t have frameworks of thinking that way.
To some extent you have got that kind of ground base where systemic, holistic thinking and obviously not just thinking, but all forms of approached knowledge we haven’t created frameworks to do that because we haven’t felt the need to do it. And that has allowed all sorts of other interests to kind of come to the fore. It is interesting you mentioned the example the lobby groups. And this is what we are now faced with. We have this reality that there is an existing energy system, which is dominated by fossil fuel interests. And they have a vested interest in kind of myopically keeping the show going for their own narrow, vested interests. Of course, it is, let’s not do injustice to that. There are people in the fossil fuel industries who are seeing what is happening and maybe want to change things. Maybe even want to change the way the industry works. Maybe even make it cleaner. But at the end of the day even if we look at this systematically, we don’t have to demonize anybody. We can see that this is a systemic problem. And when you are in an industry and this is how it works it makes sense for you to do what you are doing. It makes sense for the fossil fuel industries to maximize their profit to try and drive out any other competitor. It just makes sense within the current context to do that. It is not an evil thing. It is just what makes sense.
And that is partly why we can see all of this money which has gone into muddying the waters. It is why a company like Exxon Mobil, in its past Exxon, we know now in the 70s they funded some of the earliest climate science. They knew climate change is real. But they made a business decision because at some point someone out there realized that this was a threat to Exxon as it is currently structured as even it was structured then. If we acknowledge this, it will be the end of Exxon as we know it. We won’t acknowledge it. So they did the opposite. There is all of that going on. I think at the same time you have got the reality which is the journalists are not really trained to deal with these issues. And it has kind of gotten worse. There was a time when, you know, say maybe 10, 20 years ago when there was more of an appetite for kind of like – kind of more in depth kind of understanding of certain types of issues about oil and climate and all the rest of it. We are now moving into an age where social media has transformed the way in which the media system works, and is endangering the existing structures in the media.
There is all sorts of these destructive shifts taking place across different industries, which are all actually interconnected. But one of the things that is emerging is it is making the lives of journalists more difficult. It is making it more difficult for media companies to reach out to millennials. So there has been this real kind of shift in the media. They don’t know what they are – what they should be producing. And that kind of allowed more polarization to take place, I think in the debate about these issues when people are talking about these issues in the mainstream media. It becomes very polarized. You got vested interests, trying to put out what they want to say and then you have got people trying to counter it. And then you have people coalescing into these bubbles of discourse and no one is talking to each other across those bubbles and having like a generated dialogue.
And I think in the age of Trump it seems to me that in the last – well in the last few years into the age of Trump I have felt that, I wonder if your listeners also would agree with this – there has been a kind of tangible acceleration in the levels of informational confusion and polarization that are out there. And it has got a lot worse. And one of the arguments that I make in my book Failing States Collapsing Systems, is related to looking at the world of information in evolutionary adaptations in complex adaptive systems. And one of those simple things is that for an organism to adapt you have to be able to process information from its environment in the right way through the genetic modifications and so on and so forth. We can’t do that then you know, it has to – it will regress and it will eventually die.
It seems to me, when we take that parallel and apply it on a civilizational basis to what we are facing now, I do think that there is enough grounds to think, to suspect that we are really on the threshold of a systemic kind of phase shift, where the information levels are so kind of fraught. And what that tells us is that basically our information architecture as a civilization is just not coping. It is not coping with the huge volumes of information that have been generated. We are not processing it in a way that produces meaningful, actionable knowledge for the stakeholders of this civilization. For the people that matter in these communities, and even actually for businesses, for companies, all of the agencies that kind of matter and make decisions and are not affected are not being well served anymore by the existing information architecture that we do have. Instead, everything is becoming much more confusing, much more difficult to make sense of what is going on. And I think that is a major signifier of where we are actually as a civilization right now.
Chris Martenson: I absolutely agree. For me, it is both overly complex and actually very simple. So, the overly complex part to me is that we are flooded with information now and it is well beyond our capability as individuals to process, but individuals have a higher processing capacity than collections of individuals. The apocryphal committee can deal with a lot less decision making complexity than an individual can. It is just the nature of humans. And so, here we are at this really important time in human history. So, one of the ways, Nafeez, that I talk to audiences I say look, I am going to give you some frightening data. But I am also going to tell you that this is actually one of – I am really glad to be alive now because this is astonishing. Humans have an opportunity here to transition and grow up. The human development metaphor would be we are adolescents. We are just coming out of this period of believing we are immortal, that we can survive anything, that we can solve any problem. We are now confronting lots of hard data that says, no. You actually have to make an income. You have a budget. Time to grow up. You are not going to live forever. So we are at this stage of development as a species. And I think it is an open question as to whether or not we manage or navigate this transition to adulthood. This is hugely complex. How do you – we are going from 7.4 to 9 billion people and energy is running out. All of this crazy stuff.
And here is the simple stuff, though – this is where I can bring it back and connect with audiences. I will say hey, in the United States three weeks ago, I guess four weeks ago now, we just put the rusty patched bumblebee on the endangered species list. I am talking to these guys at NASA they are scratching their heads like why should I care? I said well, let me – what if I were a dufass on a space station and he started removing chips from the oxygen generating boards, how would you feel? They were like no, no, no. Don’t do that. I was like well, this is you can’t remove a sentinel species like the bumblebee, which does something called vibrational pollination. It is very different. You can’t just grow more honey bees because they pollinate differently. And there is a whole host of things that depend on the bumblebee. And if the bumblebee goes away, they all go away. Our ability to predict what happens next is zero. But we can probably say the yanking of sentinel species out is a bad idea or phytoplankton down 40% in the oceans. That there are these flashing red, warning signs saying we are taking the only space station we have got and I am just going to put a little asterisks here and note that all you people out here who think we are going to Mars as some sort of a solution – have fun. Join a little group. You will never find me joining you in that little party, because that is a fantasy.
As a double aside - -if you want to go live on Mars, there is a valley in Antarctica which is just as cold and just as rainless. Go spend a couple of weeks there and come back tell me how excited you are to spend the rest of your life on Mars with other people.
With that said, there are these warning signs that say a mature, adult species will throw up its hands in a time out sign and say, hey whoa. We got to fix this right away. We can’t lose the bumblebee. What is going on? But what happened with that information, Nafeez, it barely made it into the news. It was on National Geographic. I found it in a couple of newspapers and it was on Twitter for a day and it is gone.
Meanwhile, I think people connect with the dread. There is something like really dreadful about that information. It is gnawing deep down. I think this is where the millennials are coming into the story for me because increasingly I talk with younger people and they express it to me they say hey, Chris, I’m short chained – I am paraphrasing wildly – they say the narrative is broken. The story we are organizing ourselves around doesn’t work. But the keepers, you know the Donald Trump’s and the Hillary Clinton’s and the Janet Yellen’s and the Mario Draghi's are all saying we are just going to perpetuate the status quo every possible expense and risk. And we know that is not a good idea, anymore. That is we are in that uncomfortable, awkward period where the old story is broken and we don’t know what the new story is. And my concern is that the longer we perpetuate the old story, the worse the possibly solutions become in the future and the narrower our choices of things we get to do. Once we lose the bumblebee your choices now include hand pollinating tomatoes and melons and other things that require them, or losing them to time. And so that is – I feel like really instead of as much as this is a complex informational story that is the complexity of the simple part is that we are humans narratives and stories shape our lives. Our cultural narrative is broken. How do we begin going about rewriting and implementing a new narrative that comports with the realities?
Nafeez Ahmed: I mean that is the question of the century, right?
Chris Martenson: Yep.
Nafeez Ahmed: I mean, I think I mean this is really something that I think all of us who are tracking these issues have – I have – there is definitely a convergence I think amongst people who are seeing the connect the dots, the connect the dots approach and actually connecting those dots and seeing where it is taking us there is a convergence in that recognition that this is really – this really does require a fundamental reconfiguration of how we see ourselves as a species and our place really you know on the planet and what it is all about. It really strikes at the heart of who we are and what life means to us. And I think what is exciting in the way - I mean it is interesting you mentioned – I mean this – there is this interesting dynamic between the dread of what is going on and the fear which are completely rational responses, actually, to the uncertainty that we are facing. But also the awesomeness of the opportunity that is present. And as you said, that actually – there are people who kind of will bat different sides. Some will be pessimistic and some will be optimistic and I’m like you, I kind of feel like really it is an open question. We don’t know. I mean, it could be that we really don’t know – maybe our fate is sealed and we don’t know that, either. But I think that at this point there is so much going on; unless you kind of position yourself to be ready to say well I am going to be part of building what is possible for humanity. There is this kind of no point. If you are going to be a pessimist and like well we are all going to die and everything is going to be shit. Well, fine. That’s what you think, but you know that is not going to add anything. And if it is true, well there is nothing wrong with me saying, actually I am going to stare into the face of the abyss, but I am going to do it smiling and laughing and let’s see how we can get through this and let’s see what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like because what’s the –
The most fascinating thing for me really is, how so much of what we take for granted becomes questionable as a result of this break down that we are seeing. So when we begin questioning the exponential growth model, when we begin questioning the value system that sort of ends this material production consumption and then we begin questioning this idea of ourselves as being this whole paradigm that we are just disconnected material units and our self interest is what is the issue. When we begin to see that all of that is actually in a way complicit in this breakdown. And it served the purpose that it served. It is not that it hasn’t produced amazing knowledge of our environment, of our place in the universe. It is not that there hasn’t been a huge amount of amazing technological developments like the internet which has enabled people to be interconnected in ways that they never were able to before. And in a way, has paved the way for us to be able to think globally in a way that centuries ago would have never happened.
So, you sort of, it is not that everything about this paradigm is bad. It is just that it seems to have very clearly outlasted its usefulness and it is now fundamentally responsible for escalating this kind of biophysical rupture that we see happening and manifesting in so many different ways. And what that tells me is that, in terms of where we go; and I think you really kind of captured this when you said that we have to grow up as a species it is about growing up. It is an evolutionary moment and we are looking at a point now. When we apply systems theory to this when we apply our knowledge of complex, adaptive systems and the history of evolution, it does seem to me that it is absolutely clear really that we are an unprecedented moment, which is very unique which for the first time in human history we are standing at a point where we need to basically undergo some sort of fundamental systemic adaptation. Exactly what that looks like we are still trying to work out. But what is very clear is what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like seeing each other as separate material entities that just fend for ourselves and produce and consume to an endless degree. It looks quite different.
And what is interesting is the ideas and the values and the ethos of that different approach has been percolating in different civilizations in different ways. There is evidence from indigenous civilizations, from tribal societies and even from projects that are now being seeded here and now in our current context where people are trying different things. I think we are at a moment where we are rewriting that story and making a new story of what it means to be human is actually really, really important. It is particularly important because when people do look at this stuff with kind of fresh eyes there is – it is very easy to be overwhelmed by this sense of powerlessness; and that is kind of what is happening now with the rise of Trump and everything else. There is this sense of what is going on, it is absolutely crazy, it is getting worse. And I think in many ways it is going to get worse before it is getting better. When I think as even what is happening now, such as the rise of Trump and everything all of this really is symptomatic of the crisis that is at play. I think that is a question we all need to be able to ask ourselves is to what extent can I make myself useful to that imperative going forward and building and planting seeds for what comes after this moment.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. I am really glad you brought this up, because when people first encounter the data, which they already know, by the way. I just connect dots and people already know this. Like here is the most common response I get from people. They say “you freaked me out and you didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know on some level.” It is just people haven’t taken the time sometimes or didn’t want to assemble the dots and see them clearly so that first response is sphincter tightening, gut wrenching, darnit kind of moment. But the opportunity here, which I’m glad you brought up – is to think about what is actually possible. I hate to put it this way, but all the data at least from my country, but I suspect other countries can share this is that it is really actually never been easier to be a human in like human history. Really in terms of attending to the basics of bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy it is getting fed, sheltered, clothed all of that stuff. Even at minimum wage. You can do this pretty easily. People are living really high on the hog. 2500 square foot homes here in the United States. All of that. Still, I would have to say that for most people they would tell you on a personal basis something close to life sucks. There is something soul destroying about the way we have organized all of this. It is very cost effective. It is good for consumers. You have access to all of these material goods. They trigger our dopamine receptors. They feel good brief and fleetingly, but inside this is just not fulfilling. It’s not authentic. It’s not all of these things that people, I think, all through history have always strove for in some way, shape or form. You can read Rumi poems that speak to the condition today.
So, there is an opportunity to peel it back and say geez, we can fix a few things here. We are the most overmedicated, the most overweight, the most practically most imprisoned etc., and so forth. In 2010 suicides overtook car accidents as the leading cause of non natural death. And opioid overdoses are now catching up to that. It is just astonishing that those statistics say these are unhappy people, right? We need to number ourselves up. From what? I think from what is that the story we are trying to live into is life destroying. Not just for ourselves individually, but larger. So the opportunity here is to reconnect dare I say with things that are sacred, things that are beautiful, things that are all of these sort of feminism attributes, I would say, that we lost somewhere in this large sweep of history we went down this path for a long time and it was beautiful and wonderful and cost effective and made lots of profits. But on the other side it is really – hasn’t been serving us as humans who are coming here to have an experience I guess while we are alive of saying how can I be more connected, more alive and really fulfill something that is meaningful here, and leave behind a world that is worth inheriting at the same time. That is really what is up for grabs here.
To me, that is exciting. To me it is exciting. I am somebody who in my own life I sleep really well, I am healthier than I was 10 years ago. I love the garden that I am growing that is not just for me and my family but it is for the birds and the bees and other critters out there. To me this was an opportunity. In this data the opportunity embedded in this for me was to say oh, how do I want to live my life and how do I want to put things together, which was actually one of the greatest gifts in this story was waking up from the world that I was fully immersed in: PhD, MBA, corporate life, all of that, boat and the slip. Doing that. But I, honestly, Nafeez, unhappy in that story, because I wasn’t taking control – I was living into somebody else’s story not mine. This isn’t a plea for us to all become hyper individualists. Live our own way. No, this is to become more connected and to become more immersed in this project of life. And this, to me, is I think, where if I was going to insert something I think it was an extraordinary thing at the time the constitution was written they borrowed some stuff from the Iroquois nation and wrote all men are created equal. Right? That was a big statement for the time. They didn’t really mean it. Took a few hundred years to actually grow into that a little bit further.
If I was going to replace that line it would be now all life is created and it has a purpose, or something like that. That is our next transition. We might write those words and take 200 more years to grow into it but I feel that is where we are. We are at a critical turning point for humanity. We either get the base story right, or we don’t. But that to me has meaning. And we want meaning in our lives. And the number of people who have jobs. This is a short plug for people listening our annual weekend seminar at Rowe, Massachusetts, coming up April 6th to 9th. One of the key topics we talk about over those three and a half days is, people show up and they say I feel like I am leading two lives. The life that I sort of fell into and the one I want to be leading and there is a gap between those. In many cases people report that their jobs, their existence, who they are to show up in this world is not who they want to be. They know it is not who they should be given the data that you surface and that I surface and other people do.
To me that is the energy in this story, is just to wave a flag and say hey, how would you like to have a life that has actually got meaning associated with it? And you know not saying this is going to be all rainbows and unicorns, but there is clearly some tough sledding ahead. But at least it will have a purpose that goes beyond hey, I helped Walmart make an extra penny this quarter or whatever your job happens to be. Does that resonate at all for you?
Nafeez Ahmed: Absolutely. Very much so. I think this really is – I mean, I think we are very much aligned in terms of where we are seeing – I mean this to me is almost what the task of the journalist is today, which I think is really missing from what journalists are doing. And it is something that I have tried to – and it is why I have a crowd fund to support me to do investigative work, which is not – which I know will not get commissioned anywhere else. I mean if you look at the recent pieces that I have done they would just no one would commission them. And I know I write for Vice and they are really good to some extent on certain issues. They have given me a really great platform, but when it comes to really connecting dots, it is just not going to happen. I think that is kind of like a real challenge is to kind of – is to develop kind of new institutions and mechanisms that will allow us to begin to communicate this on a much wider level. And also, I think it is really critical for people to be able to think about how people can actually take that information and utilize it within our own context, whether it is going to be in your family or your community. I think the real question is how can I actually take this information and use it to actually change my life and my paradigm, and really make a break with the old paradigm. I think the more people that are able to do that, the more we will be able to shift to something which is generated.
If we don’t do – this is kind of like what is the problem; at the moment, if you look at the way the responses are taking place now everything is very – it is all kind of stuck within the cycles of the system. For example, even with what is happening with Donald Trump and all the crazy executive orders that he has put through and all the rest of it; the response to that has been I mean I am totally supportive of the responses being the resistance. It has been let’s flood the streets. Let’s march. Let’s do this. Let’s resist. Let’s not take our phones on international flights and all that stuff. The thing is that none of that actually contributes to change the systemic change that we need. In fact, really we are so preoccupied with looking at the symptom of the problem which is this gigantic orange face on our TV screens in that we are just literally reacting to that, and we get locked into a cycle.
What happens is, when we look at case studies of how this has happened in other places in the world places where there are less resources, worse institutions, where people don’t have 2500 square feet to live or the rest of it. Like Syria, for example. Here is one of the themes that come up in my new book. We look at somewhere like Syria, where we see the convergence of this crisis taking place. You got climate change ravaging the lives of farmers because of the drought. Then these farmers kind of going into the coastal cities. They are predominantly Sunni going into these coastal cities dominated by Bashar al-Assad’s clan, the Alawites, the other way and they are going into these – now you got these economic tensions increasing over like a decade. You compound that with Syria’s peak in conventional oil production in ‘96. Their state revenues began to hemorrhage after about 10 years or so. There was no planning for this. No understanding of what was going on. You know and Bashar al-Assad, you would say that at the end of the day, he is not exactly going to look at these things and be like well let me now explore alternative institutions or you know, that is why –
Chris Martenson: It is too late.
Nafeez Ahmed: It is bad enough here. Difficult enough here, right? Over there, it is like well, let’s just get the guns out, right? People are getting angry and they get their guns out. So what happened is we saw this happen break out with the Arab spring. It got to the point where people couldn’t afford bread. That systemic context of how climate, the food crisis, the water crisis kind of hit the geopolitics and it hit the human system. I created these categories where you got earth system disruption and human system destabilization. And one of the things I keep trying to explain to people is that when – so when people are hitting the streets in Syria and they – it was totally understandable what they were doing, but what really ended up happening is it contributed to human system destabilization, because people were not addressing the systemic causes. I am not saying they are necessarily equipped to deal with the systemic causes. They weren’t necessarily equipped to deal with the systemic causes and maybe everybody went in with their interests. I don’t know the answer to that question. The reality is we just look at it and stand back in hindsight. We can see how you know the geopolitics of that and internationally the domestic politics of it just – everybody went into their interest, the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Americans, the Saudis, Gulf States, blah, blah, blah Turkey. Everyone going in there and what has happened as a result of that is that Syria is worse off. We have had an ongoing civil war which has ravaged the lives of people. Infrastructures being completely destroyed and I think what I have tried to do is tried to connect – the if you look at the way – and this is what really comes down to the myopia of the mainstream media and our information architectures today. We look at what is happening in Syria and all we see is it is either the evil rebels or the evil Bashar al-Assad or it is the evil Russians or it is the evil Americans. Someone is evil and someone is doing something wrong and that is what is happening and that’s it.
What they are not seeing is this is a state failure that was triggered by a fundamental systemic breakdown. A breakdown which is on its way – it is on its way to the United States. It is on its way to Western Europe. It may take time to get here, but it is coming if we don’t do anything about it. I think that is kind of like when we take that framework and we look at what is happening with Trump or things across the pond with Brexit and the potential breakup of Europe and things like that – again a lot of these things happening on the surface, it is really important that we begin to see what is happening beneath the surface and see them systemically, and when we want to respond to them, we respond in a way which is generative.
So, there is a huge opportunity here again. It is almost like - -it is almost like people around the world are waking up because of Trump. They are suddenly waking up, like wait a minute. Something is definitely wrong. So things are going really, really crazy. There is an insane person in the White House who is more insane than anything we have ever had. previously, we have had bad people in the White House, now we have got an insane bad person in the White House. What is going on? There is this sense of awakening, but people still don’t really know where to go with it; they are not sure what things mean. So I think more than ever there is a real importance in kind of giving people the conceptual tools to see how dots are connected. That is really, really critical, that people are able to develop their own internal kind of information architecture to do that. And in also being able to translate that into generative response which isn’t just – which I would say yea go and protest. Go out on the street or do something which is a sense of resistance, but also use that resistance to build something; to build something new, which goes beyond the existing paradigm. I think that is at the moment we don’t see much discussion about this in civil society. We don’t see much discussion amongst our civil liberties organizations or within the Black Lives matter movement or even amongst environmentalists who are just talking about we just need to have clean energy. We just need to have clean energy. There is again this very, very narrow focus. What we need to do is somehow move that discourse into something which says can we stop just resisting within the system and look to how we can build a new system. Because the old system is basically dying.
Chris Martenson: I completely agree. And I for one think that Trump is a great thing at this point. And he is a symptom, not a cause. He is a great thing at this time because he is just making it plainly, grotesquely transparent what is happening, whereas I think under Obama because he is suave, he is smooth. Let’s be clear, Obama didn’t put any bankers in jail. He funded plenty of bombs, drone strikes, Guantanamo, you know no reigning in of the neonicotinoid pesticide use, on and on and on and on but people were okay with that because he at least gave the appearance of being reasonable. Trump is plainly unreasonable to a lot of people and now all of a sudden they have energy saying we, yea. This stuff he is doing is awful. For me, it was just as awful under the old guy as the new guy. But I am glad we are talking about it.
You’re right, it only matters if we can then go beyond the simple sort of knee jerk reaction which says oh my gosh, if we could just get Trump out and install Hillary then I can go back to sleep, because we can’t go back to sleep. Trump is like a bucket of ice water. He is saying wake up. But honestly, he didn’t arise again out of a vacuum. There was 40 or 50 years of Democratic and Republican failures that sort of led to this moment. So here we are. I think to have the lessons of that is really, really critical.
Again, I want to direct people to patreon.com/nafeez. He is – obviously, needs support to do things that otherwise are not supported by the media at this point. Nobody wants to pay for this kind of dot connecting because it is so uncomfortable but it is so necessary. That is patreon.com/nafeez. We are going to link to that as well. In the time we have left, again I knew we were going to run out of time. We have been talking fairly big picture. If we could in the last few minutes I just want to narrow this down and talk about my favorite subject, which is that the last three years of oil discoveries the last two in particular, worst since the 50s. We’re replacing less than 10% of the oil was discovered last year than was burned. And to anybody who understands the oil business you have to find it before you can pump it. One of my mantras with people has been the trillion plus dollars of investments that were not made over the last three years are going to bite us probably in the next three or four years. What is your view on this?
Nafeez Ahmed: I tend to definitely agree with that. I mean what we have seen over the last few years is the rate of discoveries has massively declined. We have seen that, because of the challenges that the industry is facing because of the profitability in the oil price slump that there has just not been appetite to increase investment. About discoveries; and even where there has been huge amount – when there were huge investments discoveries were still declining. And we appear to be hitting this point. I mean in the – it is interesting in one of my pieces I kind of counterposed two oil industry type perspectives. One was an analysis by HSBC which basically was completely misinterpreted in the media. They acknowledged that there was a supply problem coming down the line. For the most part, there wasn’t really an understanding of how bad the supply problem is that HSBC warns about.
On the other hand there is a report from BP which their annual energy outlook, which kind of says the opposite. Discoveries have been increasing. And actually, this is a really interesting example of this sleight of hand that goes on within the industry, because the reality is that the number of – you actually look at the number of actual discoveries everyone knows they have been declining. That is not some conjurer, it is just like some known fact across the industry. Then you got this BP report coming out and what they have done they did this really interesting thing where they were like well actually if you look at the calculated the kind of reserve base of fossil fuels in general, and the way this is done it is basically done on probabilities. Like a 50% probability that there are a certain number of reserves in a certain area. And they have certain parameters for deciding how probable it is that those are going to be recoverable. And so, they have been playing around with these figures. The thing is we know – International Energy Agency has acknowledged that back in the day in the 70s there was some kind of funding of figures, effectively. They didn’t say it was fudging, but they did acknowledge that most of the major Middle East producers increased their reserves through this accounting mechanism by saying what we are going to do is rather than using a 75% probability kind of measure to see whether these reserves are recoverable technically, we just reduce it to 50% so we can get more bang for our buck in terms of what we are putting down in our books. That is literally what they did. As a number of studies which have actually looked at this, major period studies in industry journals in kind of like proper energy journals and they acknowledge this suggests that actual reserve estimates are being massively inflated.
What is extraordinary is last year we reported on a study that was done in Wiley Reviews of Energy which basically concluded it was 1.8 trillion global reserves had been overestimated by possibly as much as half and the guy who wrote this is the editor of the energy journal published by [an energy journal] he is a former Shell chief economist. This guy is not like a paraiya. This guy has been at the heart of the industry for decades.
Now BP put out their report and they say no, don’t worry we have actually got 2.6 trillion barrels worth. And that was like just a year later. Where do these come from? No new discoveries. It is absolutely discovery. You see what they have actually done is they basically just done again the same sleight of hand and they even had the gall to map it on a graph and say actually if you look year by year these are the number of reserves that we have been adding to our global resource base. So it looks like there has been an incremental increase in the reserves we have been finding when actually it has been the exact opposite. What I did; I actually just took the graph from the HSBC report which showed discoveries hemorrhaging and took BPs and put them side by side. I said you guys decide. Look at the facts. Look at the data. You guys decide where we are. It just sums it up. You can make your own informed choice. You don’t need to be ideological about this, but Houston, you have a problem.
Chris Martenson: Yes, absolutely. You know, I mean technically if we took North Dakota and just dug down 10,000 feet and flipped the whole thing over like a flapjack we could probably really increase the amount of oil we might get out of that, because we can crush every chunk of the oil bearing shales down there and get all the oil back up. We are going to get 10% up and this is the thing that is hard to communicate to people. They just say well, look at all of this shale oil that is coming out. Yea, but in 1937 when they stuck a straw into the Ghawar and 30,000 barrels a day started flowing out of a single six inch pipe and that pipe was going to flow for the next 70 years or more that is very different from drilling down 10,000 feet tipping it sideways, going another 10,000 feet, doing a hundred stage frack, getting maybe 800 barrels a day of initial production that is 85% gone in three years and repeating that endlessly. Anybody who has flown over the shale states and looked out the window and seen the patchwork quilt of the effort involved has to understand that is fundamentally a different proposition from the oil that we used to fund ourselves to get to this stage. And the degree to which people don’t understand that is I think a shame. But second of all, I think the risk in this is that it is a huge mistake to assume that we are going to fund the continued exponential expansion of our credit markets at more than twice the rate of GDP growth. Now three times in the last five years because GDP has been so low. We can just perpetuate that indefinitely without any sort of a difficult patch. It is just beyond fantasy. It is beyond delusional. It is insane at this point in time.
So really, the central bankers at this point to me are no longer rational, reasonable people who deserve our polite attention. They are literally like the head priests and priestesses of an insane delusional death cult, if I can put it that way, because they just don’t understand the physical realities of our world. That is the part I’m wondering; it is – listen, summarize this up. I know we are getting to the end of our time. People need to understand that physical component of the world we live in and that our economy is a subset of that, not the other way around. That our high technology is actually an artifact or an emergent property of surplus energy, not the other way around. That these are really important assumptions that need to be either inverted or at least debated, so that people can say no, I reject that inversion and here is why. We are not even yet having those debates. They are just starting. I know that you are doing the best that you can to bring that forward.
I want to direct people again at this point to your book – Failing States Collapsing Systems the Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence and if I was going to put another term on there it might be financial violence, because this our whole exponential model has two states, expanding and collapsing. That is what 2008 taught me. So with that, again, one last time patreon.com/nafeez. I wish we – let’s do this again, Nafeez, if we can. I have 100 more questions for you. Obviously, we can carry this conversation on for a long time.
Nafeez Ahmed: Oh, I’d love to.
Chris Martenson: Thank you so much for your time today.
Nafeez Ahmed: Thank you, Chris. Really appreciate it. Lovely talking to you. Really interesting.