97% Owned – Director’s Cut

97% Owned – Director’s Cut

Off the back of my recent post on Transition Money, this excellent new short film, 97% Owned, explains the privatised, debt-based money system we currently use. The one that allows UK banks to simply create around £200,000,000,000 (£200bn) a year and use it as they see fit - without any oversight - to shape the economy and control politics, causing crises, creating inflation and pushing house prices out of reach. Most of us work for money, but these people are magicking it up and then using it to pay others to do whatever they please. How is this different from legalised slavery? And we are the slaves. There are alternatives, and yet we continue accepting this system scam, largely because we have been tricked to believe that economics is complicated and *yawn* boring! And yes, I have to admit, what could be more boring than being able to create money from thin air..? Watch and enjoy :) (a full feature-length version of 97% Owned is also available)
Transition Money

Transition Money

Last month I was one of forty or so attendees of the Transition 'Peak Money' day. It was a fascinating collection of people, from theorists to activists, and a potent opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing us all as the glaring errors at the heart of mainstream economics take their toll. This post is far more personal reflection than report, as Rob Hopkins has already done a great job on that front. The key theme that seemed to run throughout the day, then, was 'collapse'. Sadly, I was an hour late to the event, but the first sessions I witnessed were reports from Transitioners in Portugal, Ireland and Greece on the 'front line' impacts of the economic crunch. The talk was of collapse having already happened for many families and communities there, with statistics quoted including an 89% increase in Greek unemployment in three years, and Irish suicides having doubled since 2007. They pulled no punches. Most of us were left grey and shaken as the harsh realities of the crisis were relayed. For me, a defining memory of the day was watching the alternative economists listening to this - people who have spent decades warning of these outcomes and trying to head them off - their heads shaking sadly with lips pursed, hands involuntarily coming to their faces in dismay as their Cassandra curse unfolds. Of course, the statistics were not new to them, but hearing these stories in person somehow always brings a heavier human impact. Watching that impact reflected in their expressions felt almost inappropriate, yet doubly powerful.
Transition Money
After a break, the next session was about some of the Transition projects working to address these issues, from local currencies to the new REconomy project. The disconnect was palpable. Could we really feel that the Transition movement's responses were adequate in the face of the suffering being inflicted by the crisis? Would speaking of local currencies feel sufficient in comforting the family of the pensioner who shot himself in front of the Greek Parliament last month after his pension was cut to nothing (described by Greeks not as suicide, but as 'financial murder')? Over lunch I discussed this with Peter Lipman, Chair of the Transition Network. He pointed out that much the same could be asked of Transition responses to peak oil and climate change - would a local energy project, say, match up to the devastation felt by a Bangladeshi flooded out of their homeland? Yet, on reflection, there does seem to be something different about the crisis of the financial economy - it isn't as directly rooted in physical reality. There is something immutable about the amount of fossil fuel available to the world, and overwhelming physical inertia in the inexorably increasing levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The economic crisis, on the other hand, seems to be perhaps more wholly a crisis of narrative. It is primarily cultural inertia and entrenched sociopolitical influence that prevents us from rapidly changing the course of events, not hard physics. Richard Avedon - Transition Money This makes it a particularly exciting area for Transition to engage with, alongside the likes of Occupy, UK Uncut etc. For all the vested interests and political power around our current economic system, it seems at least theoretically possible that popular movements could actually change the fundaments of this crisis with speed. Yet personally, when writing The Transition Timeline, economics was probably the section I found most difficult. How to even get to grips with a topic where no-one seems able to agree on even the basics - where, for example, some argue that difficult times call for belt-tightening, while others advise greater spending..? It was the late David Fleming who helped me find bedrock, explaining that underneath all the jargon and mystery, economics is fundamentally the discussion of who should work at what and for how long, and of how society's resources should be distributed. He also noted that these are topics that we could reasonably expect most people to be interested in, and that we might thus start to wonder who framed the terms of the discussion in such a way that the majority lost interest, leaving profoundly misconceived systems in place to drain the true wealth that supports all our lives...? The fact that, for many, discussions of economics have appeared uninteresting and confusing is probably itself an important insight - one that points to a great deception. Those who shape the flows of money, labour and resources in our society have managed to convince us that the whole topic that shapes most people's waking hours is, of all things, boring. House on fire - Transition Money Which is why the accusations of parasitism and hypocrisy levelled at the Occupy movement in particular are so laughable. It is true that the Occupations only exist because of the popular support that supplies them with food, shelter etc (and even with Occupiers!). But to claim that those resources are provided from the largesse of free-market capitalism is ridiculous. It is the dominant economic system that is the parasite, depending as it does entirely on the one economic system with a proven long-term track record of success. Not capitalism. Not communism. Nature. People could originally build themselves a home, drink water that fell and flowed freely and source food directly for themselves, just like the other animals. Now, all the land is owned, the water is polluted and almost all sources of these essentials of life require money. Capitalism has not created the resources we require - it has co-opted them in order to sell back to us what was once truly free. If people choose to support each other in order to create a space to protest this and explore alternatives, then for the 1% to accuse them of parasitism is the height of hypocrisy. Climate economy - Transition Money The Transition approach to money, of course, has a far less oppositional energy than Occupy, seeking to bring together all elements of society in order to address our collective crises. This can be frustrating - meaning that initiatives sometimes move only at the speed of their least radical members - but it is essential to any collective transitional approach that wishes to avoid top-down enforcement. It is a truism to note that a society can only voluntarily change as fast as it is ready to. For me, a big part of the beauty of Transition is that it brings together two groups of people with very different motivations - those who are working to make this society more sustainable, and those who are working to build an alternative to catch people when this society collapses. There are many things that these folk disagree on, but in Transition they seem to find the ability to enthusiastically collaborate on a great diversity of projects while they chew over those thorny disagreements. My personal perception is that the first group may be shrinking - Derrick Jensen loves to ask who believes that our society will "undergo a voluntary transition to a sustainable way of living", and claims that no-one ever raises their hand - but a gradual improvement towards sustainability is certainly still a widespread ambition. What the Transition Money day got me pondering was whether Transition might be able to repeat the trick and team up another pair of very different viewpoints: those who are justifiably scared of collapse and its implications for themselves, their families and communities, and those who say they would welcome collapse, or even seek to hasten it, due to the damage that the current system is doing (e.g. around 50,000 species going extinct a year as we cause this planet's sixth great mass extinction). Sergey Ryzhov Robin - Transition Money
"We’ll be down to half the species of plants and animals by the end of the century if we keep at this rate" ~ E.O. Wilson
I suspect that these two perspectives can indeed work together, and the reports from Transition communities around Europe seemed to bear this out. Those who want to hasten collapse by attacking existing infrastructures seem to me to be clearly outside the Transition ethos, but there are other ways to hasten collapse. One is to work together to build alternatives. The more people flock to new alternative economies, the faster the old way loses the credibility which increasingly seems to be the only thing holding it up. As Buckminster Fuller put it, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete". In combination with means of propagating the new models, this can be a powerful principle. So for me, the most inspiring part of the day was meeting Filipa Pimentel of Portalegre em Transição (Portugal), who reported on just that process taking place there, with the gift economy expanding rapidly in response to many people's inability to access money. She outlined three principles developed in her local Transition initiative:
  • They never turn anyone away due to lack of money (and facilitate schemes like ingredient swaps to help people support themselves in other ways).
  • They never ask for (or accept) funding - they simply ask authorities and supporters to share access to their resources. They would never pay for a venue, on principle.
  • Any financial resources they do come by will never be used to maintain existing models - if these can't survive without money, let them fall. Instead those resources are used to build capacity for the gift economy.
Having been tested and found useful, these principles are rapidly being taken up by other initiatives. This strikes me as an appropriate style of local response, having grown directly out of local needs and now being communicated to other communities in the nation and around the world (Filipa also now co-ordinates networking between the national Transition hubs).
Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson - Transition Money
Meanwhile, another topic discussed on the day was an important and complementary shift in the political narrative, outlined in a recent interview with the President of Iceland, one of the few countries to refuse to bail out their banks. His full discussion of the reasons and dilemmas behind this decision is fascinating, but most striking was his comment that:
"The lesson from this is: if you want your economy to excel in the 21st century, for the IT, information-based high-tech sectors, a big banking sector, even a very successful banking system, is bad news for your economy"
It is intriguing to reflect on a culture which, faced with the classic argument of the financial sector: "We are the wealth creators, and if you tax us heavily, we will simply go elsewhere", would respond, "Ok, bye then". When banks currently receive vastly far more in subsidies (without even considering bailouts) than they pay in tax, it surely shouldn't be such an outlandish suggestion. Hopefully the below 50 second video clip (and the comments on YouTube!) might be seen as an indicator that the tide of public opinion is turning that way..
However, while Iceland managed to hold fast to the decision of its President that:
"Europe is and should be more about democracy than about financial markets ... it was, in the end, clear that I had to choose democracy"
we here in England surely face a greater battle if we want to follow in their footsteps, with London sitting as perhaps the heart of the great global financial parasite, which has grown fat and powerful. As Molly Scott Cato reminded us at last month's event, Britain was the origin of both the industrial revolution and the financial revolution, and the cultural stories these birthed thus probably run deeper here than anywhere else. This is likely to shape our culture's response as the worst begins to, quite literally, hit home (remember that in the UK, 94% of public service cuts and 88% of benefits cuts are reportedly yet to come). We can see the significance of this already. Filipa reported that in Portugal people are tending to see the collapse of the financial economy as a 'return to normal' - learning to depend on each other again. Yet Phoebe Bright relayed that in Ireland the majority are refusing to countenance that this is anything more than a blip before things get back to a much younger view of 'normality' - being able to rely on money to meet our needs. The responses adopted differ accordingly. To me, it was this clash of perspectives that was the take away message of the event. Transitioning Money must mean building both narratives and economic structures that empower people to step away from the crumbling mainstream and learn to trust in each other again, instead of in money. Portugal appears to be one place that is leading the way.
Titanic iceberg economy - Transition Money
OccupyTransition, or ‘this Halloween I dressed as the economy’

OccupyTransition, or ‘this Halloween I dressed as the economy’

This post was written for the Transition Network's Social Reporting project, and published there on Sunday 13th November.


Having been invited to be this week's Social Reporting guest editor and introduce the theme of economics, the burgeoning 'Occupy' movement seemed the obvious place to start. Over the last couple of months I have been fascinated as the occupations started with OccupyWallStreet on Sept 17th, followed by others joining in solidarity around the world, including OccupyLondon, which has been the London Stock Exchange's new neighbour since Oct 15th. I've not been well lately, so haven't been able to be there as much as I'd like, but I have been following events closely online and visiting when I can. It has been interesting to note that most of those I have met at OccupyLondon hadn't previously heard of Transition, and that got me thinking about the parallels and differences between the two movements... So what is 'Occupy' all about? A lot has been made in the mainstream media about the elusive "one demand" that Adbusters referred to in the original image that sparked the movement, and the ensuing lack of a single clear demand to fulfil that call. What are they protesting? And yet the basic point comes through loud and clear. Our economic system is profoundly unfair, and we want profound change. We live under a system in which banks receive more in subsidies than they pay in taxes, where they use their power to actually create money out of thin air, where they receive hundreds of billions in bailouts, and where the graph of global income distribution looks, well, like this: World Income Distribution graph It is easy to see why 'the 99%' might have something to say to 'the 1%' (the spike on the right should actually continue upwards over ten thousand times as far as shown here, or more than a kilometre above your computer!), and it also easy for us to let our brains boggle at numbers in the hundreds of billions of pounds. What can such numbers really mean? Yet Occupy has learned the hard way that they can become terribly real when we see some of the things that this virtually unlimited money is used for. For example, the New York Police Department, which has been increasingly violent in its treatment of OccupyWallSt, was given a $4.6m donation by bailed-out Wall Street megabank JP Morgan Chase, and the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street corporations apparently now actually hire individual serving policemen for $37/hr. Such riches also permit the big financial institutions to appear generous by becoming the chief sponsors of organisations like St. Paul's Cathedral. Not to mention of course that more than 99% of us work for money, which is apparently being magicked out of thin air by others, who then use this free resource to pay the rest of us to do whatever they see fit. It suddenly becomes crystal clear why the Oakland public were chanting "who are you protecting?" as the Oakland police force closed in to attack them for being in the streets of Oakland, threatening the use of "chemical agents" via a megaphone and throwing a flash grenade at those trying to help a wounded man:
Witnesses (AKA social reporters!) claim that one protester actually threw dollar bills at the police line while shouting "will you protect us now?" Incidentally, on the same day, on this side of the pond, Sky News were busy telling Occupy London campers that "what you're doing is imposing your will on everybody else in a similar way (to the Nazis)". Hm. Reasons abound for us to do our own reporting! Now, at first glance, all this confrontation might seem a world away from working diligently to improve the resilience of our local communities, but I believe that the links are strong, and I hope to see them grow even stronger. Let me explain why. Both Transition and Occupy are founded on a belief that the current economic system is leading us to a future that none of us desire and, although peak oil seems to be a new term to many of those at OccupyLondon, we also share a strong strand of concern over climate change. The big question for OccupyLondon though is what next? Substantial public support has helped resist the attempts of the Church of England and Corporation of London to have them moved on, and with St. Paul's having conceded that the camp presents no reason for the Cathedral to close its doors, Occupy London has established a site, at least for now. But what to do with it? ForgiveUsOurTrespasses St. Paul's letter to paper The mainstream media have been clamouring for a list of demands, yet I and many others find it refreshing that none has yet been forthcoming. I fear that setting demands is tantamount to saying "give us this much and then we will go home and allow the destruction that is business as usual to continue". For example, there is growing momentum behind calls for Occupy to demand a 'Robin Hood tax'. Yet as banks can and do create money it seems that demanding a fraction back might amount to selling ourselves for nothing.
"There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong" ~ H. L. Mencken
Given the mess things are in, it seems absurd to expect a simple set of demands that could put it all right. Instead, OccupyLondon has as yet adopted what seems to me a far more mature approach - setting up teach-ins and a 'university' in which we can educate ourselves, and then giving the resultant discussions as long as they need. It says to the guardians of the status quo "Ok, no, we don't have all the answers, but it's abundantly clear that you don't either, so let's talk it over." And it's here where I fancy Transitioners might have a few things to say (as well as much to learn!) with our growing experience of building local economic networks that make a lot more sense than this globalised mess:
The first thing that I think Transitioners can usefully contribute to the discussions is an awareness of the energy limits that we are facing, and what they mean for the possibility of continued economic growth (even leaving aside the question of its desirability). If Occupy became just a mass demand for the politicians to roll back the cuts and rescue those who have been abandoned, it might be set to fail, because the era of increasing energy abundance is over, whatever politicians might say or do. On the other hand, if Occupy recognises the inherent problem of protesting against the system your lifestyle depends upon, then the conversation goes to a much more interesting place - can we build alternative, independent systems to support us, even in a period of energy descent? This is where Transition's five years of experience might be most helpful. As Sharon Astyk put it:
"The reality is that the growth we've lived with is going away whether we like it or not - I'm hoping that this new emergent consensus that we've been screwed comes with a collective response to the end of growth - or the solidarity won't last as the system pits people against one another"
So on that note, I hand over to the social reporters to explore this week's topic of Transition economics. From local e-currencies to the gift economy - what can we bring to the discussion that is sweeping the world? The Beginning Is Nigh
Blogs posted in response by other Transitioners: The local Heathrow economy - Nov 14, 2011 Ye are many - they are few - Nov 15, 2011 just another brick in the wall (street) - Nov 15, 2011 Our Money Our Future - Money for the 99% by the 99% - Nov 17, 2011 Time to Get to Work - Nov 18, 2011 We Can't Eat Money - Nov 19, 2011 -- Edit - On Nov 9, Rob Hopkins and I did a joint presentation on Transition at OccupyLondon. Rob's report, including an interview with me, can be found here.
9 Sept 2011 - Shaun Chamberlin and Rob Hopkins at Occupy London
Stoneleigh’s peak oil/finance talk at the Transition Conference

Stoneleigh’s peak oil/finance talk at the Transition Conference

This post was originally written by me as a guest post for Rob Hopkins' Transition Culture blog, but I have kindly given myself permission to reproduce it here ;) So here I am. I fully intended to be giving the England match my full attention right now, but I've been left distinctly restive by this afternoon's long session by Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth, and feel the need to put some thoughts down. Including the extensive Q&A session her talk lasted virtually three hours and covered a lot of ground, starting from a good runthrough of the 'peak energy' situation, but quickly focusing in on finance, as she believes that this is the factor that will most dramatically shape our immediate future. Notably, the talk attracted almost half the attendees of the Transition Conference, despite the numerous other Open Space sessions taking place at the same time. For me her analysis helped to bridge the gap between comprehension and real understanding. I always feel that I don't have a genuine opinion on something until I can listen to someone argue one point of view, then listen to someone argue the opposite, and truly understand what the root of their disagreement is, so that I can make up my own mind. With finance I have always felt unable to get to the root of the disagreement between those who forecast a cataclysm in the coming years, and those who argue that the system is far more resilient than some give it credit for. That feeling has not been totally banished, but Stoneleigh (both today and in a bar-room chat until 2am last night) really helped me to close some big gaps. She has agreed to email me her slides, but essentially her position is that we are just slipping over the edge into the greatest financial Depression the world has ever seen, off the back of the biggest financial bubble the world has ever seen. This will, of course, bring significant personal consequences for individuals, families and communities. Consequently, her absolute #1 piece of advice to all and sundry is to get out of debt, as debts that may seem manageable now are unlikely to remain so as interest rates soar and property prices plummet (perhaps back to somewhere in the region of their 1970 values). Meanwhile, existing mortgage debts will stubbornly remain just as large, leaving many people in the ordeal of negative equity - their mortgage debt being bigger than the value of their house. She also explained the 'derivatives' market in a usefully clear way. Whereas many of the world's money-making schemes are based on cutting the proverbial cake into smaller and smaller slices, this system is based on giving more and more people rights over a single slice of cake. As this system unravels (as it surely must at some point, since not every claimant can have their cake to eat it), the bulk of the world's money will essentially disappear, creating huge deflation. There will be less money in circulation relative to the amount of stuff, so the value of the money that people do have will actually go up, while earnings drop. As she pointed out, the key issue to be concerned with is 'affordability' not inflation, deflation, wages or anything else. How much useful stuff can you buy with what you have? While not explicit about it as such, she seemed to be ranking the kinds of assets we might hold in terms of risk. In order, starting with the most desirable, that list was: Useful assets - e.g. tools, land, a home that you want to live in, and that can supply what you need etc... Cash - as deflation is likely to raise the value of cash, it's a good thing to have, but cash in bank accounts is quite liable to evaporate. In response to the inevitable question of where we should keep cash, her repeated answer was "be creative". Gilts - Given that holding massive amounts of cash is both impractical and likely to arouse suspicion, she suggested gilts as the next least-risky place to put money. Interestingly though, she believes that while useful productive assets are the most important thing (these are, after all, the source of our ability to support our communities and ourselves), she also pointed out that the price of such assets is likely to drop as the crisis tightens. Accordingly, she counselled that one possible course of action for those unable to afford the productive assets they need (land, say) without going into debt, could be to minimise their exposure to the crash, preserve any cash that they can, and then buy more cheaply further down the slope. Those who can afford to buy outright now though, would be well-advised to do so, as while their assets, land etc. may decrease in value, this is of less significance if they plan to hold on to these assets long-term anyway, and in return they are buying themselves time to learn to use these 'tools', before they are relying on them. As she spoke, the room was hushed and fiercely attentive, and you could see people absorbing the implications of what she said for their own financial plans, and those of their communities and families. One very interesting question was from a Transitioner who is considering setting up a community-owned renewables project, based on taking out a loan to install PV, and paying back the loan on the basis of the Government's feed-in tariffs. Stoneleigh argued that in the current situation, any Government guarantee to do anything over the next 20-25 years is barely worth the paper it's written on, and so she would advise that such projects should be undertaken either without going into debt or not at all. Above all, she stressed the urgency of the situation, and that we should not expect the financial situation to look at all like it does now in just a couple of years time. In my one-to-one chat with her on Friday night, I asked her about my Student Loan, which is currently about the most benign loan imaginable, with a rate of interest generally lower than that available on tax-free savings accounts. She argued that I should pay it off as soon as possible nonetheless, even if that takes all the money I have, as savings in the bank are at a significant risk of disappearing, whereas loans never die. Indeed, they tend to be sold on down the line until you find yourself in debt to someone rather unpleasant. We also talked about the best ways forward, given the difficult situation in which we find ourselves. We both believe that social ties are the most valuable asset we can possibly have, and that building these networks of trust is the most important work we can do. She spoke of the example of the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which despite an abundance of food, fuel, resources and manpower, the whole system ground to a halt due to the unavailability of money to connect buyers and sellers. It reached the point where farmers were pouring away perfectly good milk while people starved up the road. This put me in mind of Mark Boyle, the Moneyless Man, who I finally met for the first time at the Uncivilisation festival a couple of weeks ago. It strikes me that the simple idea of the gift economy - or Freeconomy - that he is practising, is exactly what was needed in that situation. If the farmers and the hungry had trusted each other, then without money, or indeed any other kind of transaction, a human can give another human food just for the love of it. And if the farmer needed help on his farm, then others might help for similar reasons. Perhaps if those needs coincide then barter might take place, but where they do not, the simple desire to help each other, and the trust that others will help out when you need something, could have got that society functioning again. Dilbert - And Thus Ended Capitalism But as Stoneleigh pointed out, the key is building that trust ahead of time. In difficult times, your bonds with those you trust naturally becomes even tighter, as you rely on each other more, but your mistrust for those outside your circle can also increase, as you worry that perhaps they are just after what little you have. Transition has always sought to widen and strengthen those circles, and that still looks like the most important work we can be doing, but Stoneleigh hopes to suggest a few tweaks to our tactics, as well as underscoring the sense of urgency. A number of other Transitioners have already spoken to me about being rather shaken by Stoneleigh's talk, but as she kept emphasising, we are doing the right work. Critical work. (Edit - 03/10/10 Stoneleigh's powerful talk is now available for purchase here.) ps And England drew 1-1, but somehow that doesn't seem like the most important thing I learnt today! Wrong priorities? Shaun is a co-founder of Transition Town Kingston and the author of The Transition Timeline. He writes at www.darkoptimism.org
The Crash Course at Christmas

The Crash Course at Christmas

I spent a few hours this Christmas watching former Pfizer Vice President Chris Martenson's Crash Course, which undertakes the daunting task of presenting the overarching interplay of economics, energy and environment in today's world, and doing it in a friendly, accessible way. He does an impressive job, and it's all broken down into easily digestible videos from 2-15 minutes long. His simple indisputable explanations of topics such as why economic growth does not equal prosperity are invaluable, but most impressive to me was the clarity with which Chris distinguishes between his own beliefs and the facts he is sharing which have shaped those beliefs. For example, he states up front his belief that "the next twenty years are going to be completely unlike the past twenty years", and then shows us just which facts have led him to that belief. It becomes hard to disagree. Chris has utterly reshaped his own life in the light of these understandings, and his website is a free and invaluable resource for those of us who see the turmoil in the economic system, but perhaps as yet lack an in-depth understanding of the underlying trends, laws and habits that have driven us into utterly uncharted territory and mortgaged our right to a future. For me personally it is also a launchpad for my New Year's resolution to gain a deeper understanding of the economic systems which are determining our society's key decisions in these critical times. Wherever you are, I hope you have enjoyed a delightful Christmas, but if you share the common assumption that coming Christmases will look similar for you and your family, I recommend sitting back and re-examining that dangerous belief in the company of the Crash Course. The Bailout - coming soon to the UK