Nicole Foss: A Century of Challenges

I don’t know what I don’t know, and what I heard from the Stoneleigh presentation by Nicole Foss at the Transition Conference, were a lot of things that ring true for me. I can only offer a modest summary here, but if after you listen to Nicole’s presentation and follow her slides, you think she is too pessimistic and overlooking something, I would love to hear from you.

The title of her presentation begged I find a quiet moment to sit and take it all in. So I stoked the fire, got comfortable and settled in. Not being one to run from bad news, I prefer to embrace it and let it make me stronger and more resolute to act in ways that I intuit may soon not be a choice. I can choose to cut my wood with a bow saw and know that I am building a bodily fitness, that may become needed, if not to cut logs by hand, but to work the land to grow food that is no longer being shipped many miles from energy intensive practices on farms persisting with industrial farming methods. In the future I’d like to think I may still have such choices, but to understate it, I’m not confident it will be the case.

Nicole begins by telling us that while her background is very much in the energy field, she and her partner have chosen to focus on the financial picture, because on the scale of time it moves much faster. However, she opens by acknowledging the energy-poor future we are heading for, and goes on to offer clear, concise data and interpret it in ways that seem to be inherently obvious. I know we can’t predict the future, but we can have fun trying, and I could find no fault in her logic.

Combine such factors such as increasing demand for energy in oil producing nations, just when production is falling and you have a recipe for a more rapid decline of available liquid fuels – the most used form of energy we have. A faster decline than is commonly shown on a Hubbert’s Peak diagrams. Onto that add an incredibly low EROEI (energy return on energy invested), and you’ll see the bio fuels and renewable energy sources can’t compete.


It would take 50 solid years of supply from either 32,000 (1.65Kw) wind turbines, 4 Three Gorges Dams, or 92 million solar PV panels (2.1Kw), to match the energy we consume from the cubic mile of oil we use each year. Scaling up any of these technologys in anything like the time frame needed is inconceivable.

We are going to learn to live on less.

From there Nicole begins setting the scene for describing a future of deflation and depression. Take them in, but don’t let these words get you down. I know they carry such weight, but we are creative human beings, and we haven’t tapped anything like the peak of human creativity yet, but before we get started on that, let’s hear her out.

While energy is a factor in the fall of the economic system, it was always going to implode anyway, because it is a giant pyramid scheme that depend on growth to maintain their structure. Once growth stops the laws inherent in the ‘house of cards’ financial system based on pyramid dynamics will inevitably cause a collapse. After every greed driven period of expansion, the fear driven decline is much faster, and the baseline below the starting point. Nicole then suggests that the beginning of the present period of expansion we are about to slide down of the peak of, was 1982, so expect asset values soon to fall back to 1970 levels.

It was fascinating to learn the difference between an economy experiencing hyper inflation (such as Kim and I saw in Zimbabwe when we were there in 2006), and an economy in a deflationary spiral. Because we have been in a period of phenomenal credit expansion, “and no one is printing money”, we are seeing more people laying claim over the same assets. This is the specific nature of the adjustment we are now living into.

Deflation has some interesting characteristics, but the essential ones are that credit disappears and unemployment rises. while demand and prices fall along with affordability, so that as everything becomes less affordable, the essentials become the least affordable of all. Talking to a Transition Towns audience, means the audience had a good feeling for some ways to meet essential needs within a local community, and no doubt were heightened in their appreciated of the need to have such community resilience in place quickly.

It was at the 45 minute mark that the scene had been set for understanding positive ways to respond and identifying opportunities to engage. Anyone who can facilitate the exchange of essential needs (eg food) using a local currency will be kept very busy and well supported. It was at this point I began getting excited about the Ooooby food stall project, which has been evolving over the last few months at a farmer’s market in Grey Lynn, a progressive suburb of Auckland City (NZ). This prototype has proven itself, and is now ready to be systematised, documented and made available so that it can be easily replicated.

Nicole went on to describe many details of how the unraveling is most likely to occur, and offered practical advice to those who I understand sat glued to their seats throughout this almost 90 minute talk. Yet, it was from this 45 minute mark I started to explore some ideas that always come up, whenever talk of future collapse scenarios are on the table.

We all know that while many things seem inevitable consequences of present actions, the future is not yet written. Many of us appreciate that the future is a product of today’s thoughts, ideas, visions, hopes, dreams, fears, the stories we tell, the actions we take, and the intentions we hold. We are now living in yesterday’s future.

So within the constraints of the natural world, and given the data we now have about potential, even likely, future scenarios that include less energy and an almost non-existent global economy, what IS possible?

This is, I believe, where we are being called to look – at the possibilities. We will be living differently and we don’t know exactly what that will look like. The factors that will influence our future are all so different from any previous time in history. However, we need not be limited by our past memories, or knowledge of the past because much of what exists today, also didn’t exist yesterday. We are not going back to some nostalgic ideal of an agrarian society for sure, and the degree to which aspects of the future might look familiar is open to much discussion. So within the known constraints, acknowledging we don’t know, what we don’t know, we can allow ourselves to dream.

I see the possibility that a significant awakening of consciousness has begun and that many of us will be around to witness it expand quickly. I see this occurring against a backdrop of great emotional upheaval and physical hardship, that many will succumb to, and many will rise above. I see the possibility that we could in the coming years enjoy a great renaissance (to borrow from Rob’s elevator pitch) that will make today’s world unrecognisable to tomorrow’s children. Collectively we are powerful, and to borrow from another source of great inspiration, Albert Einstein, “Your imagination is a preview of life’s coming attractions”. What are we imagining collectively?

What is the best that you can imagine, are acting on, and telling the stories about?


Rimu's picture

Really good presentation

I finally got around to listening to this. Highly recommended!