The Momentum Institute met for the first time on the 10th of March 2011, the day before an earthquake struck Japan and unleashed the nuclear catastrophe we know as Fukushima. The twofold catastrophe that engulfed the inhabitants of the northern part of Honshu Island was both local and global. It demonstrates the fragility of the thermo-industrial system. The interconnectedness of natural elements with industrial objects has made our planet an open-air laboratory: today no place on earth is free from experimentation.
If there was a geological epicentre of the earthquake, Fukushima and its power plant represent the symbolic epicentre of the anthropocene era. This accident demands both reflection and action. Fukushima signals the end of one era but also the beginning of another. Envisaging the future beyond the logics of power that dominated the 20th century is the project of the Momentum Institute.
The telluric action of humanity on earth characterises a new era: the anthropocene. This title refers to a period of acceleration linked to the burning of carbon and oil in thermal machines, which, in less than two hundred years, led to a growth and development without precedent in human history.
Since the beginning of the industrial era, humanity, or part of humanity, set itself up as a central and all-powerful geological force. To the point where today, human activity modifies all the cycles of the biosphere: carbon, water, phosphorous, nitrogen. Nature regenerates in places, but the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have not been this high for 800 000 years, and will – over the course of this century – provoke an increase in temperature of a speed unknown on this time scale. Can we escape from the dead-end of the anthropocene?
The anthropocene is also a period of exuberance that abolishes anxiety; a period in which the automobile and the flat-screen TV have become basic human rights. This is an era of addiction, where the production of means has become the end of existence; an era of acceleration, where growth, based on the endless cycle of production and consumption must continue to manufacture more useless objects for those who already have too much. This is the essence of productivism itself.
2008 marked a turning point in the history of the industrial era. The increase in oil prices was such that it provoked a chain reaction. Like in 1973, energy demonstrated that it can be a deciding factor in economic shifts, but this time provoking a permanent one. The sub-prime crisis in the USA followed soaring oil prices: it was the result of a reaction that is not accidental. The economy is conditional on energy prices. The increase in energy prices impacted on the prices of agricultural raw materials. The systematic risk of financial collapse remains a possibility.
Whilst world finance flickers and wanes, another crisis unfolds, one that is more silent but also more worrying because there is no negotiation possible in this case. This is a crisis of nature and all living beings. The grip of industrial societies on natural resources is exhausting the soil and the subsoil. The waste that these societies pour into their surroundings exceeds the ability of ecosystems to regenerate. Fish stocks are declining drastically, as is biodiversity in general, fertile land, and the water tables.
This rapid degradation of the ecosphere goes hand in hand with the exhaustion of fossil fuel resources and the dislocation of the financial system. These three interconnected areas reached their point of no return during the first decade of the 21st century.
Production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency itself. The replacement of this extraordinarily concentrated energy source remains for the moment a fantasy, if not a collective illusion. The response will not be technological, but rather come from the way societies organise themselves, the strengthening of their resilience, the maintenance of their security structure.
The 21st century resembles a sort of parentheses. The energy exuberance of the 20th century is over. Most of the oil that was easy to access was burnt in a 200-year-long industrial period. The party is over.
Accumulated debts – financial debt, energy debt and environmental debt – are coming back to haunt us, like time bombs that are beginning to explode. The consequences of the exponential growth of industrial economies was predicted as early as 1972 in the Meadows Report Limits to Growth? These included population growth, industrialisation, pollution, food production and increased rate of degradation of natural systems.
The generations of this century will inherit the debt of this industrial chaos. Those of the 22nd century will not have finished dismantling our nuclear power stations. Societies will be profoundly transformed. They will have to prepare for this change by becoming less dependent on non-renewable resources, and by consolidating their solidarity networks within strengthened communities.
As things stand, the warnings of the authors of Limits to Growth? in 1972 have been confirmed. The time of limits is now. The world economy has come into conflict with these limits. Today the benefits of growth are threatened by the negative side-effects it produces. The marginal cost of productivist development now exceeds the expected advantages.
For two hundred years and particularly since the beginning of the 20th century marked the first discovery of oil wells, formidable demographic and technological expansion, progress in health, transport and communications have been the results of access to cheap energy that is concentrated and abundant. The more such energy is available, the more it is rapidly extracted, the more other resources are exploited, including products that produce in turn more energy demand. The cycle of cause and effect turns faster and faster.
The starting point of the Momentum Institute is based on the awareness that today we are living at the end of the period marked by the greatest material wealth human history has ever known – a wealth that is founded on cheap, concentrated, temporary energy sources that made everything else possible. Just as the most important sources of energy for this material wealth are entering irreversible and inevitable decline, we are embarking on a period of generalised economic contraction.
The global crisis of natural, energetic and economic systems form the essence of our particular era.
In order to react to these crises, we need to develop the transition towards post-oil societies, societies of moderation and restraint.
For a new social imaginary
These transitions are not limited to installing wind turbines and solar panels or re-insulating buildings. Developing alternative and efficient energy sources is important but it is not enough to constitute a transition for two reasons.
The first is that no alternative energy (renewable or not) is able to provide energy as cheap and concentrated as that of fossil fuels in the short time that remains to complete this transition.
The second is that the infrastructure of transport, electricity, building and food systems was constructed according to the nature of petrol, natural gas, coal, and (in France) nuclear power. Moving to different energy sources means redesigning and reconfiguring most of these infrastructures.
In France the Grenelle de l’Environment (a public think-tank on the environment) did not encourage a new social imaginary. It did not allow for the necessary changes, even though it encouraged renewable energies and the rehabilitation of buildings. The Grenelle did not choose for example to favour the democratisation and de-concentration of energy systems.
The post petrol, post-nuclear, post-coal transition means completely redesigning and rethinking the infrastructures of society and alongside this, working to achieve a new social imaginary by envisaging a near future without petrol and without non-renewable energy.
Just as the agrarian economy of 1800 was completely different from the current era of fossil fuels, the post-fossil fuel and post-nuclear economy of 2050 will be profoundly different from our current landscape.
This difference will be visible in urban planning, the use of land, food systems, manufacturing, distribution networks, employment, transport organisation, medical cover, tourism and many others. This transformation will also require reinvestment in our cultural and economic values.
As the psycho-sociologist Harald Welzer writes, “the only possibility open to us is to maintain our civilisation in the area of culture, health, security, equality, democracy, and to radically curb the aberrations of development and notably a consumption of energy that will burden the future, a mobility that is chaotic and a culture of chronic availability”1.
The time has come to establish an equitable regime of production and distribution that citizens and local governments are able to appropriate. The time has come for solidarities and democracies founded on sharing and cooperation. The time has come to set up a new framework for the economy in order to firmly establish it within our local and global ecosystem.
The moment to change eras
The winds of change are here. Consumerism is breathing its last breath and not because of rising awareness, but because the crisis is limiting purchase power. The historical moment that we are living in demands a different way of thinking and it is working towards new opportunities to resolve very practical problems.
For example, the reduction of packaging, the re-localisation of the economy, self-sufficient energy in buildings are today all questions that are taken seriously, even though for decades economists and politicians laughed at these ideas, which came out of the environmental movement.
Without a sound, an informal movement of citizens, communities, businesses and elected officials has begun the transition towards a future that will function with less energy. These avant-garde actors are working to reduce their energy consumption, producing food and energy locally, investing in local economies, rehabilitating lost knowledge, and preserving local ecosystems.
For some citizens this effort has essentially led to planting a garden, taking a bicycle to work or stopping shopping in hypermarkets. Their motivations are various: slowing climate change, preserving the environment or food security, investing in the local economy. The essence of these efforts is nonetheless the same: all recognise that the world is changing, that the old way of acting, based on the idea that the growth of consumption can and must continue indefinitely, is no longer viable.
Taken in isolation, these efforts are far from sufficient. But together they can give direction to a new society.
Until now, most of these efforts have been expressed by exceptional individuals who quickly understood the crisis we were facing. As the collapse moves forward, more and more individuals will have to provide for their own survival. Many multinational businesses, of which the profit is based on the still relatively low price of energy and natural resources, will go bankrupt, whilst local businesses and cooperatives will grow. Local governments, confronted with the decline of revenue will have to find new sources of energy to enable them to maintain water treatment systems, public transport and emergency services.
What we need now is clarity, operationalization, cooperation and coordination. From a shared vision and an understanding of the challenges and solutions we can establish a transition towards an equitable, durable world, the world that will come after this era of cheap energy.
It is true that this transition has been on offer for forty years without any results. Re-reading the Meadows report of 1972, the issues warned of at the time are now current events. Society is more receptive than it was, weakened as it is by the crisis that is setting in and which will reveal itself to be a recession. Today transition strategies must be thought and proposed as central rather than marginal alternatives for society. But first we must manage to establish connections between the myriad initiatives and reflections which, here and there, make up a durable transition.
What role for the Momentum Institute?
The Momentum Institute is dedicated to responding to the challenges of our era: how can we organise the transition to a post-growth, post-fossil fuel, climate-altered world? How can we understand and act on the issues of the anthropocene? What are the emergency exits? What will resilient societies look like in the time of the triple crisis: energetic, economic, and ecological?
The objective of our approach is to establish a community of contributors made up of citizens engaged in the major areas of transition. The contributors to the Momentum Institute intervene in their area of expertise, in relation with the thinking on transition. They produce diagnostics, analyses, scenarios, and original proposals regarding strategies of transition and resilience.
The Momentum Institute is there to encourage them and to make them known, to individuals, to businesses, to local and national governments. Together they will publish a Momentum Annual Report, which will cover each major theme and the most recent initiatives to respond to the crisis, from a coherent, even holistic, approach.
We survey themes such as: the restoration of ecosystems, food systems, land usage, rural and urban permaculture, energy and energy autonomy, cooperative economy, resilience trades, practical solidarities, resolution of cognitive dissonance, and new forms of democracy.
We are also concerned with providing visibility to emerging solutions that are already put into practice by towns in transition, such as energy cooperatives, AMAPs (organic local produce cooperatives), non-profit businesses, social employment, and eco-districts.
LaRevueDurable is our main editorial partner, given the obvious compatibility of the vision of thisjournal, unceasingly dedicated for nearly a decade to the themes defended by the Momentum Institute and the search for new ways to create resilience. We are also connected to the monthly magazine Silence and the journal Entropia, the transition movement, the Université Populaire de Permaculture and other places of reflection like the Post Carbon Institute in California, the New Economics Foundation in Briatin and the association and institute Negawatt in France.
While bad news flows out from Fukushima power station, climate scientists, petrol geologists and economists, awareness grows. The decisions we make today will determine the face of the world for several generations, even several centuries, to come. This historical moment of transition is an opportunity. We know what will happen if things follow their current course.
But if we manage to disseminate them, the initiatives and contributions for imagining and creating the post-petrol world will spread – both locally and globally. They will come to represent the status quo and the efforts that we go to today will not be unusual tomorrow. In the meantime, we have a chance, and it is perhaps our last chance, to step back from the precipice. A challenge, a singular moment, a window of opportunity: Momentum.