29 May 2006
Brian Goodwin on Peak Oil – an Interview
Interview with Brian Goodwin. Schumacher College. May 8th 2006.
Brian Goodwin is a Visiting Scholar at Schumacher College and teaches on their MSc in Holistic Science. His research and teaching interests are on the use of the sciences of complexity to study emergent phenomena in evolution and to understand health in various contexts: in individuals, communities, organisations, economies and ecosystems. This involves a fundamental rethinking of basic scientific assumptions and leads to a new science of qualities. He is the author of Signs of Life : How Complexity Pervades Biology,
How The Leopard Changed Its Spots : the Evolution of Complexity, and Form and Transformation : Generative and Relational Principles in Biology. He very kindly undertook to answer the 7 questions developed as part of the Skilling Up for Powerdown course being prepared at the Cultivate Centre in Dublin.
Do you see Peak Oil as a crisis or an opportunity?
I see it as primarily an opportunity. One of the things that we look at quite extensively is the fact that a lot of the most important opportunities arise out of a very chaotic situation, in society generally. So this transition from chaos to some new kind of order, which is of course the opportunity to put something different in place, is not going to be an easy transition at all. It is however an extraordinary opportunity to recover a sensible lifestyle with high quality living. That is the opportunity.
If the approach that you propose were to come to fruition, and you woke up 30 years from now, in that reality, what would it look like, smell like, feel like, talk us through it.
(Laughs). I had this vision of the human race becoming largely invisible on the planet. That would be my vision 30 years from now. We are extremely visible, and we have a very high influence on the state of the planet as we all know, in terms of pollution, global warming, light pollution, noise pollution, I mean, the poor cetaceans in the ocean, the whales and dolphins, are just bombarded with noise all the time. We are extremely visible and audible on the planet.
So my vision for 30 years from now is that human beings will be largely invisible. Now that seems like an extraordinary vision, and I don’t know how we are going to get there in detail, but it’s a bit like the deer and the badgers, the squirrels and most of nature, there are plenty of them around but they are largely invisible because they have a different lifestyle. I’m not talking about a Rousseau ‘back to nature’, I’m talking about using appropriate technology, natural materials and energy to achieve a lifestyle in which we blend with the natural world, we have learnt how to live in a way that other species have, and therefore we reduced our footprint, decreasing it dramatically to the point where we are one among many instead of an absolutely dominant species.
How would we get from here to there?
(Laughs) Ah well, that’s the question! I think we can see many of the elements that we need to put in place to achieve that. The current mantra of ‘sustainability’, ecological sustainability, getting away from growth, is very important, in that we have to use all of the resources available to us now. We have fantastic resources at the moment, and we could invest those in the technologies that we require in order to become invisible, to become integrated with the natural world in a much more reasonable way than we are now. I emphasise again this does not mean going backwards, it means going forward to a very very desirable, beautiful, culture.
The technology we need to put in place, well we all know about it, it’s solar, wind, ecological buildings, using sustainable materials, redesigning everything that we make in the culture so that we don’t spread toxins around, we don’t have landfills, we are doing what the natural world does in terms of recycling, using energy efficiency, everything gets recycled, every product is functional and it is beautiful. So, we have a beautiful culture with a high quality of life, and plenty of quantities, but they are the quantities that we need, to live a high quality life.
To what extent do solutions to the energy problem involve action in other, non energy, fields?
I would choose a couple of things. One is the whole issue of currencies and economics. We are in an economic system at the moment which is ingenious; it gives a lot of freedom to exchange of goods, services and so on, but underneath it is deadly. Deadly because it forces economic growth, and economic growth forces the destruction of Nature, and of us. We are on the way to becoming an endangered species if we go down that route. So we need to diversify.
One of the keys in natural phenomena is the diversity of different strategies used. We have adopted a single strategy for currency and economics and our economic system is based on and driven by that. We need to diversify our currencies. This is not something that has never been heard of before, it happens spontaneously all the time. In Argentina the economic system has collapsed, that is the conventional dollar-based system has collapsed, but they’ve put in place an alternative. They are trading and exchanging goods, and they are using their own local currencies. This is therefore a spontaneous thing to happen, it’s part of the process of localization, going local, developing appropriate local currencies, connected to useful resources, like energy, food, buildings and so on.
The other area is education. Education needs to be fundamentally transformed. I’ve been in Universities nearly all my life, and in my experience University education has now become pretty thoroughly irrelevant to the training that people need to receive in order to make the transition that we are going through. We need a new education. So what is the image of this new education process? I have just been talking about local currencies, well education needs also to ‘go local’. Universities should serve their local communities and they should serve them with the ingenuity that comes out of this concentration of creative energy in Universities in terms of putting together new communities, developing new technologies, so that we develop what I like to think of now as something that Fritjof Capra has introduced into the dialogue here at Schumacher College, looking at the Renaissance, the period of Leonardo da Vinci, which had a workshop culture.
A lot of people got their practical skills in workshops. I love this idea. If Universities and schools could become in some sense workshops, playshops, toyshops, whatever you want to call it, but where practical skills are developed for the whole person, and we don’t fragment the world of learning into specialized disciplines. We will still have specialized skills, because people will want to develop high quality abilities in different areas, but that’s up to the individual to choose, and that will give them the creativity to put things together in a new way. So those are the two things I would focus on, currency systems and the education process.
What are the problems and bottlenecks?
The economy is a major bottleneck. Without that changing I think we are going to have great difficulty going local. Another is the values that we have in society. Without a change in values, and what it is that people feels gives meaning to their lives, we are stuck in a way of life that’s a kind of, what you would call in behavioural studies, displacement activity. In other words, we get quantities of goods, of cars, of whatever it might be, in order to substitute for qualities and meaning. So there is a shift of values that needs to be achieved, and that is a kind of bottleneck, a conceptual bottleneck in the culture.
What are the skills we need to learn and the training & education we need to put in place to respond to peak oil?
At a risk of repeating myself, we need to have an education system that develops these practical skills. I can see all kinds of alternative technology systems emerging from this. We need to learn all these. We need to learn about permaculture, low maintenance, low energy, high productivity systems that are at the same time beautiful and natural. This doesn’t mean that we make a full switch to permaculture but that we diversify our agricultural systems. So in the first place, we go organic, but we also have a certain amount of farming, we use polytunnels and so on, but we intersperse that with permaculture systems, which are in come sense natural ecosystems but they are selected, to be high productivity.
We have a vision here at Schumacher: in 15 years I’d love to see Stone Pines growing here and producing pine nuts, so that this area of land now becomes beautiful, perhaps with an understory of herbs, so the whole thing is productive, low maintenance, and beautiful and it serves the college’s needs and the needs of the local community. We have the world expert in forest garden permaculture, Martin Crawford, here on the estate. So we use our land, resources and skills in a way that is appropriate to the new culture that is emerging.
How can this issue be communicated to the widest possible audience?
The campaign to Make Poverty History showed that you can use the media and personalities and music. I think of this as a 60s culture, the rebirth of Orpheus, and music as a vehicle for bringing people together and getting a message across in a very joyful way, so that this is the way in which entertainment can become part of this transformational culture and we use the personalities in the way that Geldof has used people to publicise this and to bring about some of these changes in mindset and values, and to create a sense of community around the world.
I think you can also use politics for this. Now I think it is going to be a different politics than the one we have, but nevertheless that is important. The political spectrum is another very important vehicle for getting these ideas across. So I would use these to any extent that can be effective. It can reach an awful lot of people and it can use the media extensively.
What would most help you in your work to achieve this vision?
I think what would facilitate this more than anything else would be a change of mindset in people. Without a change of mindset, without a change of values, and ambitions, we’re not going to move at all. Somehow this has to come about. Now, it is happening spontaneously, and there is a whole network of organisations and associations, people and individuals, including yourself, who are working on this transformation. There will come a time when there is a critical mass, and we have no idea when that will be or even if we will achieve it, but in the normal course of events they will link up, and bring about a transformation that is faster than any of us ever expected, it will be the flowering of a new culture, a Renaissance, which is creative, innovative, has high quality of experience and values, has meaning for people, is integrated with the world, but the first thing is to change the vision.
You can read a selection of articles by Brian here.