ISBN 978 0 470 92764 9. “The Crash Course – The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy and Environment” by Chris Martenson PhD was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2011. This hardback has 317 pages with a Foreword, Acknowledgements, Introduction, seven parts totalling twenty-eight chapters, Appendix, Notes and Index. This is one of these cases where the title performs a disservice to the quality of the work inside the covers. We know you should never judge a book by its cover but any mention of the word “crash” from an American leaves us with visions of Armalite wielding red necks heading to the outback of Montana to await the judgement day of doom. Doom. DOOM!
It was this snap judgement that meant it was a long while before we even picked this book up – fearing for the worst. In fact those fears were unfounded as this may well be one of the best books on the topic of the near-term-potential-for-economic-collapse we have seen. All this from a guy who will tell you that you shouldn’t be afraid: look on it as an opportunity and get ready…
Certainly Martenson does not come across as the gun-crazed survivalist zealot. He has a PhD in pathology and an MBA from Cornell so is well educated & business-like. He was a VP of a Fortune 300 company (by coincidence the same SAIC that Rob Hirsch hails from) with a comfortable McMansion in Connecticut, a wife and kids. He was living the American Dream. Or so he thought. Then, one day, he realised that it was less dream – more nightmare.He took his family and fled to a farm in Massachusetts. He claims he was “shocked to the core” but his path to (let’s call it) “crashology” seems odd to most of us. Many can claim the epiphany from reading the work of Colin Campbell in 1999 or Richard Heinberg in 2002 or seeing the twin towers fall in 2001. But no. What shook Chis so much was that his “broker” couldn’t explain why Chris’s stocks weren’t doing very well. It is very easy to laugh – the author continues this “matter-of-fact” style though the book when he so often mentions his stock portfolio. He seems to be a little unaware that probably most of his readership do no have stocks and shares. It is largely the preserve of the elite class to which Chris belongs. Most of his readers may well have pensions but we doubt that they were phoning up their pension fund to complain of poor gains in 2002… However, on balance, this other-worldly-ness is not necessarily a bad thing. As Chris points out early on, he has been able to deliver his self-developed “Crash Course” to the highest level of the Corporate ladder and his taken very SERIOUSLY.
So although the rest of us may roll our eyes to heaven at the umpteenth whinge about the poor performance of his stock portfolio it may well certainly grab somebody’s attention. And those somebodies are the somebodies-who-matter. What Chris found in 2002 was the level of debt in the economy was unsustainable. Most of us have figured that bit out by now but it came as a bombshell to the author. Maybe growing up inside the American Dream blinded his class to the fact it had long started crumbling as far back as 1971 when Nixon delinked the Dollar to Gold and hence started the unbelievable credit bubble we sit upon today. He is writing this largely for a North American audience but Chris does seem to be very aware of events for his readership in Europe and Asia and will make often reference to many other countries around the world (to point out that their economic predicament is no different from that of the United States).
So in 2003 Chris fled to the country and he started to wrote the Crash Course. Many will already know that THIS book is but the very latest incarnation because the entire nine hour Internet video is available for download off YouTube for free since 2008. He funded the entire enterprise off of his dwindling savings. THIS is dedication. He believes in what he writes. He is passionate about it and walks the talk. Of course conspiracy theorists will point out that he is personally profiting from his vision of the coming crash but given his very personal costs it surely would have been easier to write this book as a VP rather than a farmer… Now the Crash Course is a vast library of supporting documents, a web site, an online forum, a DVD, a newsletter and so on. What started as a labour of love grew into a small cottage industry that actually returned Chris’s investment in it. He even has employees working for him. One might wonder how silly he will look to his disciples if any of his predictions don’t come true.
However, like Malthus before him, there is no doubt that Martenson will, one day, be right. He often tells the reader that he has no crystal ball and he cannot tell exactly how the crash will happen. All he knows it that something has to change because our economies cannot grow infinitely on a finite planet. The “next twenty years will be nothing like the last twenty” is something he repeats regularly. So he reckons the day of reckoning is coming soon. Why? Well he reckons Peak Oil is the one issue that will tip the economy into permanent recession that will bring balance back to the world economy and poverty to so many. Although he does wax lyrical about the many problems of the banking system he offers no real solution – only a warning that Governments will print electronic money to try and make the economy grow again. Growth, he confidently predicts, that can no longer be resurrected.
The book is well written, lucid and easy to read. Some sections are somewhat laboured. Specifically the section on exponential growth could have been vastly reduced. After the first page most readers will be thinking “yeah – I get it!” before Chris beats the reader up with sixteen more pages on the bleedin obvious. Other sections offer novelty and a sprinkling of nice anecdotes and metaphors to jolly it all along. We especially liked the section on economic bubbles and how they burst. Very informative. So, before you know it you will have seen the bubbles burst, seen the end of oil and read about the depletion of finite mineral resources. Soon you will be on Chapter 25 and Chris’s “Future Scenarios” which make brilliant reading even if they are US-centric.
But, what’s this? Something is missing… Something… Oooh yes. I know what it is: climate change. In fact the worlds “climate change” or their equivalent only appear in three brief mentions. Other than that global warming makes takes no part in the Crash Course. This does seem a bit odd. He makes no attempt to deny climate change but he simply doesn’t mention it. Now recall his former SAIC colleague Rob Hirst has been more forthright in trying to point out to readers that we simply “don’t know” enough about climate change for it to warrant a second thought. This point of view dates back to about 1990 and seems ludicrous twenty years later. So what is going on? Is this the dark side of the “my-portfolio-of-stocks-is-plummeting” coin? Is intransigence in the face of man-made climate change a mark of the political and economic elites of the USA or is it simply a dirty word that Martenson feels should not sully his perfect collapsing world view? Maybe he won’t be taken seriously if he mentions it in the USA? Who knows? Isn’t he in danger of not being taken seriously elsewhere in the world? However he certainly feels very comfortable talking about the depletion of everything from fresh water to fish. How very Sierra Club of him.
Does it detract from his work? Yes and no. Certainly you can deliver your Transition message to a room full of people and then hand this book to the first climate change denier to raise his or her hand at the end. You see… It make no difference what YOU believe. The great Transition is coming anyway. Maybe the thing to do with this book is to first read chapters 26, 27 and 28 where the author covers off “What should I do?” by explaining exactly what HE did. He mentions the word “transition” several times but with a small “t”. But everything he writes screams our “Transition” with a CAPITAL “T”. It is all there: the appeal for relocalisation, the talking up of local currency and the opportunities for rebuilding community. He even uses the word “resilience” a lot.
So this is a manifesto for what people must do to transition; lest they knocked over by the economic storm that started with unsustainable debt and ends with the end of oil. All backed up facts, figures and heck of a lot of commonsense. You’ll love it. Give it to a climate change denier for Christmas. Highly recommended.