Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Is peak oil here?

I have recently finished reading Jeremy Leggett's excellent book "Half gone. Oil, gas, hot air and the global energy crisis." Of course I had heard about peak oil before, and I had tried to get my head around what it all means, but this book really hit the message home for me. Leggett is a credible witness given his long-standing background as a consultant for the oil industry, where he worked as geologist for many years. He later became a campaigner for Greenpeace International and now works in the renewable energy sector. (For more information, see his profile at The Guardian.

Essentially, peak oil is the theory that oil production will roughly follow a bell curve. Production increases until it hits the top of the bell curve, the "peak", after which oil production goes into steady decline. However, because consumption continues to increase, the decline has a significant effect on the availability and the cost of oil as the gap between increasing demand and decreasing supply widens. According to Leggett, there are many industry experts who believe that oil production may have peaked in 2005. His book was published in November 2005. At the time, Leggett predicted that oil prices may well hit $100.00 a barrel by 2007. I think we can say that he was spot on with that prediction.

Peak oil does not mean an end to oil. However, it does mean an end to cheap oil.

And that has many implications which go far beyond the price of petrol to run our cars. Almost every part of modern life is dependent on oil. Food production is a major consumer of oil, medicine, transport, plastics, computers, virtually everything we do and own depends on oil. The so-called "green revolution" which has provided us with plentiful cheap food for the last number of decades, is totally dependent on cheap oil for the production of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and for the running of industrialised farm machinery and the transport of the final products.

One would think that an issue of that importance would be on the forefront of concerns for every government and every citizen. This is not the case, not least because the oil industry has been very successful in keeping the level of possible oil supply and oil reserves more or less secret, and assessments of how much oil is left and when we may hit peak oil are hard to make. It is therefore highly significant that Jeroen van der Veer, Shell’s chief executive, has now admitted that peak oil is near. According to The Times newspaper of 25 January 2008, he "said in an e-mail to the company’s staff this week that output of conventional oil and gas was close to peaking. He wrote: 'Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.'"

Similarly, Matt Simmons alerted Americans early in 2007, that peak oil is here and that we very urgently need to start working on solutions for a post-oil era. Simmons should know about the subject. He is the Chairman of Simmons & Company, the "only independent investment bank specializing in the entire spectrum of the energy industry. Founded in 1974, the firm has acted as financial advisor in over $102 billion of transactions, including 491 merger and acquisitions worth over $69 billion." (for more information see the Simmons and Co website). Below is an interview with Matt Simmons which was first broadcast in early 2007.

I had been naive enough to believe that peak oil may be good for climate change - everybody has to use less and become more energy efficient, we would produce less CO2 from burning oil as we had less available. Unfortunately, this may not be the case at all, as the increase in cost for crude may make other options more attractive, such as oil from tar sands, gasification of coal or simply a massive increase in the use of coal for power generation. All those options are very carbon intensive. The recovery of oil from tar sands not only produces masses of CO2, it also requires large amounts of water, another natural resource that is in increasingly short supply on this planet.

According to the article in the Times, Shell has produced two possible future scenarios:

"The first scenario, “Scramble”, envisages a mad dash by nations to secure resources. With policymakers viewing energy as “a zero-sum game,” use of domestic coal and biofuels accelerates. It is a world, said the Shell chief, where 'policymakers pay little attention to energy consumption – until supplies run short.'

The alternative scenario, “Blue-prints”, envisages a world of political cooperation between governments on efficiency standards and taxes, a convergence of policies on emissions trading and local initiatives to improve environmental performance of buildings."

I fear that currently we are in the middle of scenario one. The Iraq war clearly was driven by a "mad dash to secure resources". Hopefully, one lesson learnt from that horrible war will be that this is not the way to go.

There are also indications that we may be able to switch to the second scenario, particularly if we get a real change in US politics after the next presidential elections. Emissions trading in Europe, talk about setting up emissions trading schemes in Australia and in several States in the US, a renewed focus on energy efficiency, these are all positive steps in the right direction.

The question is whether we have waited too long, lulled by a false sense of security. Economists tend to assure me that the market will fix it and respond with new technologies. I am not sure that the market can be left alone to sort this out - clearly, so far the market has failed because it has been distorted by special interests and lack of openness and accountability by the major players, including the oil industry and their proponents in the White House.

It will be interesting to see whether we are capable of coming up with alternative solutions in the short term, or how long it will take if we are indeed running out of oil, given that all our technologies are based on oil. There are indications that at least some companies are starting to take note. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 15 January 2008, Rick Wagoner, chairman and chief executive of US car manufacturer General Motors recently announced that oil production has peaked and the switch to electric cars is inevitable. However, GM will not have an electric car ready until at least 2010, and the technology simply is not there yet for mass production.

Again, my initial joy at reading about this development (clean, green cars!?) was quickly dampened by the realisation that these cars would only be "green" and greenhouse neutral, if the electricity comes from renewable energy sources, not coal fired power plants.

The double whammy of peak oil and climate change does make for some interesting challenges ahead.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The End of America? Lessons for Democracy.

US social commentator Naomi Wolf recently published a book called "The End of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot". in which she takes a deep look at her country and the state of democracy in the United States.

Naomi Wolf argues that we should not take democracy for granted. In times of crisis, there can be many pressures on democracy. She says there is a kind of "blue print" for establishing dictatorships which tends to be very similar across the world.

According to Wolf, there are ten typical steps, or "tipping points", which can bring about the closing down of a functioning democracy. Wolf argues that all ten steps are currently underway in the United States. She also makes the point that the founding fathers of the United States had been well aware of the dangers of losing democracy and that the American system of checks and balances was designed with the aim to prevent such a take-over of power. However, too many Americans do not understand the system, and many have little knowledge of early 20th century European history where democratic countries such as Germany or Italy ended up with brutal dictatorships. Many Americans are therefore ill equipped to understand what is happening in their country and how their democratic system could be eroded in front of their own eyes.

This YouTube video shows a talk Wolf gave on October 11, 2007 at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus, in which she summarised her arguments.

(Please note: This is a long video and a slower broadband speed may not be able to deliver it properly. In that case you can also download her talk as an mp3 from radio4all)

Wolf says that the typical ten steps to close down a democracy are:

1) Invoke a terrifying external or internal threat. This can be real or invented, and it will be used to create fear and terror in the hearts and minds of the population. - She reminds us for example of the false evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

2) Create a secret prison system where torture takes place and which is outside the rule of law. Very often this includes the establishment of a military tribunal system. - It is hard not to immediately think of Guantanamo Bay and American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

3) Set up a paramilitary. - Mercenaries now often replace US military troups, such as in Iraq. According to a report in The Nation, one major private security firm, Blackwater, began operating on US soil after Hurricane Katrina. Changes to the law have made it possible for the President to use private security firms any time without having to get permission from Congress.

4) Set up a national surveillance system under the banner of "national security". (The New York Times reported on 6 August 2007 that "President Bush signed into law on Sunday legislation that broadly expanded the government’s authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.")

5) Infiltrate and harass citizens groups. Apparently according to the Guardian, this has indeed happened, for example in church groups where the pastor preached in favour of peace rather than support Bush's war campaign in Iraq. The Guardian also reports that "groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000."

6) Engage in arbitrary detention and release, and create lists of people on watch lists. For example, Professor Walter F Murphy, emeritus of Princeton University and foremost constitutional scholar, was put on a no-flight list and therefore could not board a domestic flight in March 2007. It turned out that he had ended up on a "terror watch list" because he had publicly criticised George Bush's violations of the constitution. (see democracy now)

7) Target key individuals. - According to the Guardian, "Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them. Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job."

8) Control the press. Wolf maintains that there is a steady stream of misinformation coming from the White House which makes it increasingly difficult for the American public to work out what is real and what isn't.

9) Dissent is seen as equal to treason. Let me quote the Guardian again: When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories (who wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions), Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.

10) Suspend the rule of law. To quote the Guardian one more time: "The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens."

Wolf does not end her talk in despair. There is not going to be a military coup in the United States. But democracy can be eroded away. This does not only apply to the States, it applies to any democracy. It is up to us citizens to be watchful and understand that democracy matters.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Australian population numbers

The Sustainable Population Australia website states that the optimum population for Australia is 10 million at the current standard of living (as determined by the WWF's Living Planet Report 2002). At a lower standard of living, it could be up to 21 million. (Numbers in the quote were taken from the UK-based Optimum Population Trust.)

Well, we have now surpassed 21 million people in Australia.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, "On 25 January 2008 at 11:29:05 (Canberra time), the resident population of Australia is projected to be:


This projection is based on the estimated resident population at 30 June 2007 and assumes growth since then of:

one birth every 1 minute and 56 seconds,
one death every 3 minutes and 58 seconds,
a net gain of one international migrant every 3 minutes and 5 seconds leading to an overall total population increase of one person every 1 minutes and 42 seconds.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that, "The annual population growth rate for the year ended 30 June 2007 at 1.53% was the highest annual growth rate for a year ended 30 June since 1989. [...] 56 per cent of the population increase in Australia was due to immigration, which reached 177,600 persons in the financial year up to June 2007."

According to the same Australian Bureau of Statistics website, "For the 12 months ended 30 June 2007, Australia's population growth rate (1.5%) was higher than that of the world (1.2%). Australia's growth rate was lower than that of Papua New Guinea (2.2%), Malaysia (1.8%), and India (1.6%). It was higher than Singapore (1.4%), Indonesia (1.2%), New Zealand (1.0%), Canada (0.9%), United States of America (0.9%), Thailand (0.7%), China (0.6%), Hong Kong (0.6%) and the United Kingdom (0.3%). Unlike Australia, Germany experienced no change. Further, Japan experienced a decrease in population (0.1%)."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Rainwater harvesting

I was listening to ABC Radio National yesterday when I happened to tune in to a beautiful program from New Dimensions Radio. The presenter of the program interviewed Brad Lancaster from Tucson, Arizona. Brad is a permaculture designer who has spent many years working out how to harvest rainwater to be able to live sustainably in a dryland environment.

He has had incredible success on his own property and has achieved a whole-of-community approach to water harvesting. In Brad's own words: “In an average year with 12 inches of rainfall, we harvest over 100,000 gallons of rain a year within the soils of our 1/8-acre site and the surrounding public right-of-way. Yet we (household of 3 people, plus many more using our neighborhood laundromat) use less than 20,000 gallons of municipal/well water a year. This way we give back or infiltrate more water into the community watershed than we take/pump out. That’s key to water sustainability. Give back more than you take.”

Brad has also written three books on rainwater harvesting, detailing the reasons for rainwater harvesting and how to go about it. During his interview with New Dimensions Radio, Brad told the story of Mr. Phiri, a water farmer from Zimbabwe, who, after losing his job and having no access to food or money for his family, turned his run-down, desolate and dried-out piece of land into his very own Garden of Eden, producing food for his family and rebuilding his community. It was such an inspirational tale, told with so much affection and beauty, that I found myself in tears in front of the radio, something that doesn't happen all that often. I guess I could really relate to the man and his story of how he slowly, over several decades transformed his land into a lush oasis, all just by harvesting rainwater, re-hydrating the soil and never giving up. I felt very inspired by this story of somebody who managed to turn a desert into a garden without having access to expensive equipment and technological fixes. Brad said in the interview that one thing that struck him about Mr Phiri was that the man was always laughing. He was clearly a very happy man. I am not sure we can say that about too many people in our wealthy Western communities.

But one sentence in particular stuck in my mind: "We have to make our home where we are." Mr Phiri told Brad how several people from his village had decided to move on because the place was so run down that they felt they couldn't stay. They eventually came back and told him that they had taken their problem with them. They had moved to a lush oasis, made the same mistakes all over and reduced the green landscape to another desert. Now they were back. They copied Mr Phiri's methods and rebuilt their own lands, and together with the land, they rebuilt their communities.

I sometimes feel like I want to move to a place where it rains more. I get frustrated and desperate with the lack of water and the endless frustrations of trying to keep plants alive. But I can see that thinking that "the fence is greener on the other side" will not solve the problems of our planet.

The program I mentioned can be listened to at the New Dimensions Radio website. Unfortunately, you do have to register with them and the programs are not entirely free, either. Brad's own website harvestingrainwater.com has a few links to other radio interviews and video clips which are all worthwhile. The following YouTube video shows Brad's neighbourhood project which gives you an idea of the man and his work.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The only bread recipe you need...

I have been making our own bread for many many years now. It is much cheaper than shop-bought bread, it tastes far better and it is free from preservatives and additives. If you use renewable energy at home (either on your own roof or by way of subscribing to a green energy option with your energy provider) your bread will definitely produce a smaller carbon-footprint than commercial bread. Plus, of course, as you only produce "on demand", there is far less waste.

And it is really simple. I sometimes make a batch of several loaves of bread in the oven, otherwise I use our breadmaker.

I have gone through three breadmakers over the years (daily use does take its toll on them eventually). I have not found a great difference in baking capacity between more expensive brands and cheaper makes, although one of the cheaper breadmakers I have owned in the past did have a problem with seals coming off around the small shafts that turn the kneader knifes. So it is worth inspecting a breadmaker closely before buying it.

One thing I did notice, however, was that the cheaper brands tend to come with instruction booklets that are close to hopeless. I had one booklet with bread recipes where the flour was missing in the list of ingredients. My current breadmaker came with recipes that simply did not work - the bread would either rise and then collapse or it would form one big solid lump.

So here is my tried and true basic breadmaking recipe which worked in every breadmaker I have ever owned.

Add to your breadmaker bowl in the order specified for your breadmaker (some need the liquid first, others the flour, so check your instructions if unsure).

350 ml water
good dash of olive oil (approximately 2 tablespoons' worth)
2 teaspoons of salt (less if you prefer!)
500 grams of flour
1 1/4 teaspoons of instant yeast.

That's it. Turn bread-maker on and three hours later, you have a beautiful loaf of bread.

Now, this is the basic recipe, and from there on you can stretch it in all sorts of different ways.

For example:

- Add a tablespoon of sugar. Makes the bread slightly sweeter and changes the texture a little bit.
- Use milk instead of water.
- Use an egg plus milk instead of water. This will give a denser texture.
- Add a tablespoon of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon and half a cup of raisins to make raisin bread.
- Add some linseed, sesame seed, sunflower seed etc for multi-grain bread.
- Add a handful of walnuts (plus, if you like, a teaspoon of cinnamon) for walnut bread.
- Use yoghurt instead of water.
- Add caraway seeds for a different taste.
- Add some grated cheese for cheese bread.
- Use butter instead of olive oil.
- Replace some of the flour (up to 50 g or so) with rolled oats.
The options are endless, once you get going!

Is it worth making your own bread?

To give you an idea of how much you will save making your own bread:
Last time I bought flour I paid A$0.79 for one kilo, so I will use A$0.39 for my loaf of bread.
The other ingredients of my basic loaf add approximately another A$0.03 to my basic cost. Plus electricity to run the breadmaker. I estimate it costs me around A$0.05 per loaf. Add to that the depreciation cost of my breadmaker - my current one and my previous one both cost A69.00. They last, with daily use, at least 3 years, which makes another A$0.06 per loaf (assuming I make one loaf a day, which is about right).

So this comes to a total of A$0.53 per loaf of bread. This is half the cost of the cheapest (and not very nice) loaf at ALDI. Even the luxury loaves described above (walnut bread, raisin bread, multi-grain bread etc) will still be under A$ 0.60 a loaf.

And because we are using 100% green power in this household, carbon emissions from baking our bread are zero.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why I have become a Locavore... again

I grew up on a diet of mostly organically and locally grown fruit and vegetables and meat from cattle and pigs which were raised naturally on a small farm. My parents grew a great variety of vegetables in their own garden. We were lucky that we had inherited a piece of land with a number of well-producing fruit trees my grandfather had planted many years ago, and my mother used to preserve enough for winter.

My mother's family also used to own some productive farm land that was leased to a farmer. Once a year, we would get a whole side each of beef and pork which my parents stored in the freezer and which would supply us with most of the meat we would need for the year. I remember the large pieces of cured meat in the meat safe in the cellar. We had more strawberries than we could eat. My Dad always served me slices of apple on a small plate when I did my schoolwork. I loved the canned fruits in winter.

Then I left home to study. Without access to any gardens, I now had to buy all my food. For many years, I would buy my fruit, vegetables and meat at the supermarket, mainly checking for freshness and price. I tried to eat a well-rounded diet but I usually found organically grown vegetables far too expensive and I certainly couldn't afford the pricey organically grown meat. And although I had heard about possible health benefits of organic produce, I was doubtful whether the at times rather tired and ancient looking "organic" vegetables in the supermarket would really be able deliver those benefits.

I developed hay-fever and a number of food allergies. For years, I couldn't eat peaches, plums or any other stone fruit. Even apples made my throat to swell up. I am not sure what caused all of this. Maybe it was the pollution in the city. Maybe it would have happened anyway. Maybe it was a result of eating too much 'conventionally' grown food with its high levels of pesticides and fertilizers, who knows. The food also didn't taste as good as it did at home, but over the years I forgot. I simply got used to the cardboard tomatoes and the watery strawberries.

Well, nothing gets you going more effectively than a good financial shock to the system, particularly when coupled with an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of our modern way of life (to understand the impact of food transport see my earlier post on locavorism). The financial shock came a couple years ago, when an event in our family caused a massive drop in income. We faced some stark choices at the time. Essentially, despite being a reasonably frugal family who hardly ever went out, rarely ate take-away food and didn't spend much money on holidays or clothes, we were now living beyond our means. I couldn't go back to work with three young kids (see my post on the cost of work) so there was no way to get additional income. The alternative was to cut spending. And where is it easiest to cut spending? You guessed right - the cost of food.

I had a vegetable garden before, and I was producing stuff. But certainly not enough to feed the family the whole year around. I started with tomatoes. They do well even in a dry climate. I soon produced enough to keep us in tomatoes for a whole year. I preserved tomatoes by drying some, bottling others, and producing our own tomato sauces and chutneys. I found that sometimes kids who come to visit can't cope with having tomato sauce from a glass jar that doesn't look like a tomato sauce bottle. For that purpose I have kept a commercial tomato sauce bottle which I fill with my tomato sauce when I serve it to visiting children. That solved that problem - I haven't had complaints since!

Then my parents came to visit from Europe and Dad helped around in the garden. He, of course, had many great ideas which really got me going. Not everything Dad tried to do worked in our very different climate and with very different soil conditions - Dad's garden is located on an old sand dune in a rainy part of Germany, mine is pure clay in our dry, sunburnt country. One solution to both, of course, is to add plenty of organic matter to change the soil over time to make it more suitable to growing food.

We are lucky that we have two large water tanks which makes us independent of those lunatic water restrictions which allow endless showers but regulate when people are allowed to water their gardens. It means I can water my vegetable patch every day if necessary, carefully, of course, as I cannot afford to waste a drop of my precious rain water. I also find I constantly have to adapt to the increasing temperatures. This year, in particular, I found the intensity of the sun worse than before. Everything got burnt in the heatwave that followed the great rain we had over Christmas - even my corn and the tomatoes were suffering, and I noticed that our neighbour's grape vine also ended up with severe sunburn. I tried covering my main vegetable patch with a large shade cloth which has made a huge difference.

Despite these challenges I am now producing virtually all our vegetables and some of our fruit. I am planting more fruit trees, so hopefully in a few years' time my children will be able to enjoy the pleasure of simply going outside and pick fruit whenever they feel like it.

Our food experiment has had some interesting and unexpected side effects. I am rediscovering the taste of real food. It really hits you when you eat a carrot straight from the garden or pick a strawberry that tastes like strawberry. It's a taste sensation! I also noticed that our medical expenses have gone down. It is possible we were simply lucky last year, but apart from a bout of chickenpox which went by without problems (the older two boys are vaccinated and were hardly affected, the baby got it but got over it quickly) none of the kids got sick last year. This was highly unusual, as we ordinarily suffer the typical bouts of colds and other infectious diseases. And there were plenty of those that went around in our area last year, with many friends and their children affected by respiratory illnesses, gastroenteritis and similar medical conditions. Maybe we were just lucky. Or maybe, just maybe, the food we eat now is making us healthier?

What is a Locavore?

A locavore is simply somebody who eats local food!

Apparently, according to locavores.com, the word "locavore" was the "2007 Word of the Year" for the Oxford American Dictionary. Locavores try to eat mostly what is produced within a couple of hundred kilometres or so of where they live. They usually seek out organically grown, fresh produce.

There are a number of reasons for this:

- Food transport is a major source of oil consumption and CO2 emissions. Steven L. Hopp put it quite simply "a quick way to improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it". This is because "[G]etting the crop from seed to harvest takes only one fifth of the total oil used for our food. The lion’s share is consumed during the trip from the farm to your plate. Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1500 miles. In addition to direct transport, other fuel-thirsty steps include processing (drying, milling, cutting, sorting, baking), packaging, warehousing and refrigeration. Energy calories consumed by production, packaging and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food." I suspect, given the similarity in lifestyle and per-capita CO2 emissions, the same numbers would apply to Australian consumers. If you are keen to reduce the carbon footprint of your food, there is no easier way than to eat local food.

- The quality of many food items is compromised due to harvesting of unripe fruit and vegetables to extend the time they can survive being in transit from producer to consumer. Local food is fresher and usually tastier.

- Most modern Westerners have lost touch with the rhythm of life and the cycle of seasons. We have forgotten how much joy there is in waiting in anticipation for the first fresh strawberries from the garden because we are used to having cardboard strawberries all year round in the shop. Or how wonderful it is to eat fresh asparagus while they are in season and then not touch another one until the next season comes around.

- A focus on local food brings consumers in closer contact with the way their food is being produced, be it vegetables or fruit or meat. We may even produce some of our food ourselves!

- Farmers' markets are a great way to access the variety of food produced in your local area and they are a wonderful way to get out and meet people.

Of course nobody has to go to total extremes. For example, in my family we still eat oranges and they are not grown commercially anywhere nearby. Although... the wonderful Australian gardening guru Jackie French does grow them in her garden, and that is not too far from here, so maybe, in a few years time, even we may have local oranges in our backyard...

But if we all changed our habits just somewhat some of the time, it would make a huge difference.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

We are the ones we have been waiting for: The work of David Korten and WiserEarth

I recently came across the work of David Korten which I find well worth reading. Korten, who has a BA in psychology from Stanford University and MBA and Ph.D. degrees from the Stanford Business School, taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business. He then worked in developing countries in Asia and Africa for the US Development Agency USAID from the late 1970s until the 1990s, when he realised that many of the issues facing developing countries, such as "deepening poverty, growing inequality, environmental devastation, and social disintegration" were also becoming increasingly prevalent in developed countries such as the US.

Korten is the author of the bestseller "When Corporations Rule the World". His latest book, "The Great Turning." was published in 2006. In an article written for the 2007 autumn edition of Yes! Magazine, Korten argues that we have been conned by "empire stories" which are designed to make us all believe that it is beneficial for everybody if the rich get richer, although this really comes at great cost to the rest of society and the environment. Korten believes that the three major challenges of our time, namely climate change, peak oil and a collapse of the value of the US dollar, are now converging on us. We have two choices - we can continue on our path of destruction led by the "Empire" proponents, or we can start building a better world for us all.

When you actually look at what Korten describes as "the prevailing narratives of the 'Empire Prosperity Story'", you quickly realise that this is indeed the mantra of "economic rationalism" that has permeated Australian society throughout the Howard years. Some of the main "narratives" are:

"- Economic growth fills our lives with material abundance, lifts the poor from their misery, and creates the wealth needed to protect the environment.
- Money is the measure of wealth and the proper arbiter of every choice and relationship.
- Prosperity depends on freeing wealthy investors from taxes and regulations that limit their incentive and capacity to invest in creating the new jobs that enrich us all.
- Unregulated markets allocate resources to their most productive and highest value use.
- The wealthy deserve their riches because we all get richer as the benefits of the investments of those on top trickle down to those on the bottom.
- Poverty is caused by welfare programs that strip the poor of motivation to become productive members of society willing to work hard at the jobs the market offers."

According to Korten, "[t]his money-serving prosperity story is repeated endlessly by corporate media and taught in economics, business, and public policy courses in our colleges and universities almost as sacred writ."

Korten then makes the observation that "[f]ew notice the implications of its legitimation of the power and privilege of for-profit corporations and an economic system designed to maximize returns to money, that is, to make rich people richer. Furthermore, it praises extreme individualism that, in other circumstances would be condemned as sociopathic; values life only as a commodity; and diverts our attention from the basic reality that destroying life to make money is an act of collective insanity. In addition to destroying real wealth, it threatens our very survival as a species."

But instead of simply moaning that the rich get richer and the poor pay for it, Korten proposes a revolutionary concept, quite simple, but very compelling, namely to counter the "Empire Story" with what he calls the "Earth Community Prosperity Story":

"-Healthy children, families, communities, and ecological systems are the true measure of real wealth.
- Mutual caring and support are the primary currency of healthy families and communities, and community is the key to economic security.
- Real wealth is created by investing in the human capital of productive people, the social capital of caring relationships, and the natural capital of healthy ecosystems.
- The end of poverty and the healing of the environment will come from reallocating material resources from rich to poor and from life-destructive to life-nurturing uses.
- Markets have a vital role, but democratically accountable governments must secure community interests by assuring that everyone plays by basic rules that internalize costs, maintain equity, and favor human-scale local businesses that honor community values and serve community needs.
- Economies must serve and be accountable to people, not the reverse."

Korten calls this the "Earth Community Prosperity Story" because it "evokes a vision of the possibility of creating life-serving economies grounded in communities that respect the irreducible interdependence of people and nature. Although rarely heard, this story is based on familiar notions of generosity and fairness, and negates each of the claims of the imperial prosperity story that currently shapes economic policy and practice."

(All quotes above are from Korten's article Living Wealth: Better Than Money, published in Yes! Magazine. Another keynote address where expands on those points can be found at freespeech.org. A great interview with David Korten was published in the September 2007 edition of The Sun Magazine.

That all may sound very lofty but it is not. Korten is dead-serious when he says that "We are the ones we have been waiting for", meaning it is up to each of us to bring about change for a better future. Among the many ways to achieve a positive outcome are local and grassroots organisations. These, however, need to come together in a global movement to be more effective, and that is indeed happening.

Thanks to the Internet, people power can actually become reality, and an over-arching, open-source website called WiserEarth provides a focus point for a growing number of community organisations from around the world. WiserEarth currently lists close to 108,000 organisations that have signed up to the site. I noticed that the Australian democracy movement GetUp is also represented here.

I am really pleased I found the articles by David Korten and the WiserEarth website. It is so easy to get depressed about the state of the environment, climate change, social unrest and political upheaval around the world, the often exhausting and unsatisfying pace of life in Western countries, and all the other challenges we face, and just give up. In fact, a number of people I have spoken to recently have expressed feeling highly pessimistic about our future and that they thought there was not much they could do about it. I find it empowering and refreshing to find organisations and people that not only want to do something positive on an individual level but who are able to draw in so many individuals and groups in a global movement.