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Chuck: Hey everybody, this is Chuck Marohn. Welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. This is strong citizens week at Strong Towns, we are focusing on people who have chosen to live with a Strong Towns kind of mindset.
Years ago I came across The Crash Course and its author Chris Martenson, who I've been following ever since. Chris is an economic researcher and a futurist who specializes in energy and resource depletion. He is the co-founder of peakprosperity.com, along with Adam Taggart. You can and should follow their blog as well as listen to their Peak Prosperity podcast, which are both really valuable resources.
Chris Martenson, welcome to the Strong Towns podcast.
Martenson: Chuck, it's a real pleasure to be with you and your listeners today.
Chuck: Thank you so much. I think we'll do the most justice to this conversation by giving people a sense of who you are and where you came from. Specifically I'd like to kind of frame the conversation by, if you could, talk a little bit about your- and I think you've called it your life before age 40?
Martenson: Yeah, well I do have a before and after story, and like all good stories a transformation. Before, I did everything I was supposed to do according to my culture. I went and got good degrees from good universities and I made my way up the corporate ladder.
Then 2000 and 2001 came along and I had this moment of enlightened self interest where I started saying, "Hey, what's happening in my portfolio," all these savings that I'd acquired. Being a curious data driven guy, I started digging around. I dug into the economy and discovered a few things that unnerved me.
It became profound enough that over time my wife shared my concerns and we made some very large transitions in our life as a result of this information that we'd uncovered about what's happening in the economy, what's really happening in the environment, and particularly what's happening in the energy landscape. I ultimately quit my job as a vice president of a very large corporation to start a blog. Nobody listening should come to me for career advice, I'm just saying I'm the wrong guy.
Chuck: You were climbing the corporate ladder in a sense, and I know you talked at one point about having the nice house, the big house paid off, and kind of running the rat race. What was it that queued you in specifically in kind of the fog of that life, that maybe this isn't all it's cracked up to be?
Martenson: I wish I could tell you there was one blinding, spiritual moment, but it was just creeping up on me that the life I was leading with was, if I could put to fine a point, but it was a little bit pointless. I was just working hard, accumulating money, helping big companies make the same mistakes they made the year before and make little progress.
Once I discovered, Chuck, what's really happening out there in the world, what the real trends are in terms of population, resources, energy; the fact that we print money out of thin air. These were all blinding revelations to me when I finally unearthed them, in part because I couldn't believe I hadn't been taught these thing anywhere along the way, that I had to discover these for myself. These are really, big important trends to be aware of.
The before story: living in a big house, five bedrooms, on the coast, a waterfront. I've got a big boat and a [inaudible 00:03:39], all of that. Afterward, my wife and I are renting for a period of six years a house one third the size in a rural place in Massachusetts, and I got a kayak. The information I came across that I share with the world now professionally has really had a huge impact on me.
Chuck: I discovered you through The Crash Course, which I think is where a lot of people first hear about you. The Crash Course, for our listeners, is a video series. You put it ultimately into a book which I highly recommend both. I want our listeners to grasp some of those weighty issues that you struggled with, so could you give us a broad overview of the three Es?
Martenson: I'd love to. The three Es are, in order, economy, energy, and environment, and there's an honorary fourth E in there which is called exponential growth. Our economy, [inaudible 00:04:28] really understood how it worked. Now listen, you're talking to a guy, I went to Cornell, I got an NBA in finance.
They taught me everything about economics, but they failed to teach me the most important part which is that it's founded on a system of money that is either growing exponentially or it's threatening to collapse. 2008, scary time. 2009, very scary. All that happened really in our system was the credit stopped growing exponentially, and that alone almost destroyed the whole system.
Here's the one sentence summary of The Crash Course, is that the next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years. The reason for that is we can no longer figure out how to grow the world's economy at the required rate that supports the money system we have. There's a collision coming, I think it's going to be very disruptive.
Really, to understand why I think the economy can't grow infinitely forever, all you have to do is trundle over to the environment and look at, I don't know, oceans that are depleted of fishes or aquifers that are drained or the fact that soils are being depleted and flushed to the ocean. Or the energy story, where we are still 80% dependent on fossil fuels. Those have a life span, they will deplete, they are finite.
Nobody at the higher levels of our country, or even the world, is really talking about this collision between an economic model that demands infinite growth and a world that clearly has limits. That piece is not being talked about, and that's why The Crash Course was born, because somebody had to say it.
Chuck: I think the most profound moment for me watching the videos- because I've got an engineering degree and I studied exponential growth functions. I'm watching this and I'm thinking, "This makes a lot of sense."
But you had the one video where you showed the copper and said, "This is what a copper nugget looked like a hundred years ago. We could walk around and just find these things lying on the ground. Here's how we're getting copper today," and, "Understand that our economy requires more copper next year than we pull out of the ground this year."
Can you talk a little bit about that, maybe that particular insight, but how that exponential growth thing really changes the way we need to look at our economy?
Martenson: Absolutely, this is really one of the least understood concepts. Albert Bartlett was a math professor out of Colorado University. He just did a fantastic job of explaining this. It really goes like this: We live in an exponential world, and we know this because we read about it every day in the newspaper. We open it up and we say, "Oh, the economy grew 3% last quarter," or, "Car sales were up 10%," or, "Population expanded 1.5% last year."
Anything that's growing by some percentage over time is growing exponentially. It could be 1% per hundred years or 10% per minute, it doesn't matter. Once I really understood that we had this need for exponential growth and I got my head around that, because I had a lot of math too in my science training. But somehow this concept hadn't really struck me like it did once I started to understand how our economy worked.
It simple, like if somebody listening, it works this simply. Let's say your town has said, "Hey, we'd like to grow 5% a year." That seems reasonable, and for growing 5% a year we'll be creating enough jobs and everybody will be happy and will feel prosperous. That doesn't sound all that dramatic, 5% a year. If somebody said I'll give you 5% off your next pair of jeans nobody's jumping in the car and racing off for that special, right?
But 5% a year, if we just use something called the rule of 70, or the rule of 72. I'll use 70 because I can do it in my head. We would say, if we wanted to answer this question: how much time would pass before something that's growing at 5% per year, how long before that's fully doubled in size? Twice as big as it used to be? Useful if you're asking that question about a portfolio, for instance, of money.
In this example we would say 5 into 70 goes 14 times, that means that in this town, deceptive seemingly modest goal of growing by 5% a year says that in 14 years it wants to be twice as big as it currently is. Twice as many schools, twice as much sewage treatment issues, twice the size of the police department, if everything's scaling appropriately. Twice as many cars on the road.
Okay, so our town has just doubled in size. But if it keeps on with that 5% growth, in 14 years after that it's now twice as big again. Somebody who was born in this town, by the time they're 28 their town is now four times as large. Then it's eight times as large, then sixteen.
Any sixth grader can sit down with you and go, "Okay, eventually that has to stop," right? Which means we can't keep growing by some percentage over time. We just know this. Mathematically, you just run out of room. The question doesn't become: Is growth the right strategy to pursue? The question becomes: How do we want to manage ourselves in some form of sustainable, stable existence?
The growth phase of humanity was wonderful, beautiful, it did a lot of things. But we're, the people listening to this, we're alive at a time when that old narrative is no longer the right one. It's breaking down and we have to figure out how we want to inhabit a different, new story which is not wrapped entirely around growth.
Chuck: I don't want to diverge into politics, but I do want to ask you to react to one of the [memes 00:10:06] that I've heard. I think you and I think alike on this in the sense that I find our current political debate to be a silly sideshow at best. But there's a thing that I read just pointing out that debt has doubled under the Obama administration.
It was put out there as, "Look at this reckless spending," but yet the doubling of debt is part of that exponential function. We should actually expect, if it's president Trump or Sanders or Clinton, that debt's likely going to double again to 40 trillion in the next eight years, right?
Martenson: Absolutely, it would have to or the system would go through extraordinarily painful adjustments. The system, the entire- by the system I mean the whole thing: the system of government, of military expenditures, of economic expansion, all of that. All of that is tied to this expansion of credit. Credit is how we get money in our system.
Most people are unaware that if you go to the bank and you take out a few hundred thousand dollar mortgage, they didn't have 200 thousand lying in an account somewhere they handed you. They literally created that money, that 200 thousand, at the moment you took out that loan. Debt and money are connected, it's a concept that I go to great detail in The Crash Course, because it's important to understand how it works.
The reason I think you're exactly right, it doesn't matter what president we have next time. Completely independent of any ideology or partisanship, the debt is going to keep growing because that's what the system, which is more powerful than our political system and wants and desires, that system is going to keep expanding until it can't.
This is why I'm on my little horse doing my Paul Revere act which is waving my hand going, "Hey people, when that system of money starts to break down, it's going to break down very disruptively. That's what history says at any rate." It's kind of one of those either we change on our own terms or we change on some other terms, which is a euphemism for, "Wow, that could be really awkward and unpleasant."
Chuck: I think we could talk about the three Es. You've done hours and hours on this, and I strongly recommend that our listeners go and delve into The Crash Course. But I want to switch to your book Prosper. The full title is Prosper!: How to Prepare for the Future and Create a World Worth Inheriting.
You and Adam wrote this book. I read it, I found it incredibly empowering and actually really optimistic. I wonder if you maybe could start by just contrasting that life you had before 40 with kind of an overview of what life after 50, now, for you is, with this kind of new prosperous set of principles.
Martenson: I'd love to. We started all of this with The Crash Course, which is the problem definition side. Obviously, I could wade around in those waters a long time. But problem definition or information, it doesn't lead to action. It's just useless anxiety producing stuff.
Adam and I, over the years, we've spent a lot of time in seminars in our own lives personally, which I'll get to in a second. Online, working with people who wrestle with this information of how the world is changing and ask this very important question, which is: What should I do?
What I did in my own life was I sort of went into more of like the Gandhi side of things and said, "I think I have to become the change I wish to see." It's a matter of integrity for me. I don't ever write about or entice people to do things I haven't done myself.
But as well, it was itself the right thing for me to begin doing is to figure out how to become more resilient, more well insulated against the shocks and travails that might come, but also to increase my quality of life while I was maybe trimming my standard of living as measured by stuff, the classic stuff.
Prosper is really the written form of what Adam and I and a lot of our readers have gone through in terms of transitioning their lives piece by piece, taking steps away from what I'll call classic american consumptive life style, into something a little bit more fulfilling, a little bit richer, a little bit higher quality as it were.
If somebody came to my house and looked across my yard, they would see a standard two acre suburban lot with a cape on it. Put it in the back, I've got a 50 by 70 foot garden and I've got an orchard and I've got some bees and I've got chickens. When the spring finally comes people would notice that this is an extraordinarily beautiful landscape I've got that is entirely abundant and edible and/or good for pollinators or whatnot.
In that story, there's a really important thing, Chuck, that I came across, which was discovering that myself, that humans in general, we can be extraordinary agents of abundance and regeneration. We can use our minds to that end, or we can build golf courses and spray pesticides on them and be maybe sort of the opposite of that story.
We can choose a very different path that I think has been told to us as the way we are. Humans show up and species disappear and the waters get fouled. That's a story which is true, if we choose that story. Prosper is about the fact that we can make other choices.
Chuck: In the book, you divide your thoughts into different forms of capital. I found this a very fascinating way to look at things. Can we go through some of these? I'd like to start with financial capital.
I feel like one of the major insights you had there pushes back on this notion that if I just get mine now, if I just get enough money now, when things crash I'll be fine because I'll have more money than everybody else. Money doesn't equal resiliency necessarily in your world. Can you talk a little bit about financial capital?
Martenson: Absolutely. We have a quote in that chapter which is: "None are so poor as those who only have money." That's an absolutely true quote. The eight forms of capital is based on a body of work that we found in the permaculture field. A couple of brilliant young guys, Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua, they have a book out talking about these eight forms.
We took that, modified it a bit. I love the idea, because financial capital's what everybody thinks of when you say capital. That's an easy place to start. By the way, it's the most commonplace for people to start, and it's even where I started my own little enlightened self interest story from before. When we ask that question what should I do, because look, we work hard, it's a real act of heroics sometimes to set aside some savings. We don't want that to just evaporate and go away, right?
Securing your finances is we spend a good amount of time on that form of capital in the book. A lot of advice in there specifically around how people can begin to get their arms around their finances and develop a balance sheet and a cash flow statement and understand where their expenditures are.
Then we say that the money that you do have in the markets needs to be managed extremely well but carefully a return of, not return on, principle given the risks we see in the world. That piece aside, we also say people should set aside a portion of their financial capital to begin pouring it into other forms of capital that are as important or more important than financial capital.
Chuck: I want you to talk about, if you would, living capital. This is the next one you had in the book after financial, and I thought it was a really good transition. You do suggest early on that one of the things we should do with our financial capital is actually start building some of this living capital. What is living capital and how could we co about building it?
Martenson: Living capital is anything that is going to support you in your life. I mentioned some before, as I look out my window I can see my garden and the rich soils that I'm building up carefully over time using financial capital to buy compost and put that compost on every spring so that my soils are getting deeper and deeper and richer.
Living capital, as well, is your body. We can spend more of our money to buy healthier foods that we eat. It turns out you are what you eat. Or maybe to get a gym membership, or other things that would help support more fully getting into healthy shape. By the way, I'm much healthier today than I was 10 years ago, which is hard to say at this age but it's true.
Chuck: It's funny because I'm friends with Jim Kunstler. He kind of gave you a little bit of ribbing in a sense and said, he was complementary, he said, "You look really good now," but he did it in his typical Jim Kunstler way which was a back handed- because you were kind of overweight before. One of the advantages is you're feeling better, right?
Martenson: Absolutely, feeling better and looking better. It all goes together. Part of that story was- this is the depth that we go into in the book- was, for me, was going to a natural path, getting a whole bunch of data, had a bunch of blood work done, got a food sensitivity test, discovered that I was eating foods that were inflaming my body. Not grotesquely with hives so you would notice it, but just eating like everybody else was in a way that turns out, for me, was just creating low levels of inflammation that lead to a variety of things like joints that hurt and low levels of energy and things like that.
Just shifting what I eat, this isn't a diet this is more like an eating regime, but understanding, really, the impact of the foods I was eating and the impact those were having on my body and shifting away from those was one of the better things I've done in the last 10 years. It had extraordinary profound effects for me.
In this chapter on living capital, yes having your body in shape is not just- I do that for a couple reasons. One, if some sort of harder future comes along it'll be better for me to be in shape than not. But today, it actually is an extraordinary input to my perceived quality of life and happiness today.
Chuck: I want you to, if you would, talk a little about material capital. As I was going through this chapter, it seemed to me there's a lot of insight for me in terms of the clothes I buy. I grew up in a small town and we bought a lot of our clothes at the big box store and at the mall. You could get a lot of stuff really cheap, but a couple times through the wash and it's not really worth anything anymore.
I started, a few years ago, buying what, for me at the time, was really expensive clothes. I can't believe I'm spending this much on a shirt. I can't believe I'm spending this much on a pair of pants, but I still have them. I still wear them all the time and they're in good shape. You have some insights on, and I'll say how we can be better consumers.
I know you don't buy into the notion that we're primarily consumers, but when we do have to consume things, what are some of the things that we can and should look to do to make sure we're building up that material capital?
Martenson: Well sure, just that from the outside in, the material capital are just the things you own. You mentioned a few which are clothes, but it could be your car. For me, it's my house, my homestead. The insulation that's in it, the solar installations I have, the thermal for hot water and [inaudible 00:21:46]. Those are my material capital investments.
Here, one of the things we're doing with a lot of these forms of capital is inviting people to reconsider this idea of investment. You might think of clothes as an expenditure, but you're actually telling me that you think of this more as an investment now. I spend money and they last longer, so this is truly an investment in something if it's better for you. You enjoy it more, it lasts longer, all of that.
One of the concepts in this chapter that we promote is [inaudible 00:22:20]. This came to us from a gentleman on our site whose got a lot of military training. It was sort of a motto he picked up there. Cry once means spend the money today, you're going to spend more, so you're going to cry. But you're going to buy something of much higher quality that's going to last longer.
You will find that you have a lot more enjoyment of that particular thing whether it's a piece of art on the wall that you really enjoy, or a rug, or it's a shovel, whatever it happens to be. But if you really buy the thing that's higher quality, that's higher utility, it's well designed.
I'm not saying you have to spend more to enjoy something, but if that's the choice and you have the choice between the cheap thing from China and the more expensive thing from somewhere else, and you look at them, we would invite you to consider buying the more expensive piece if that's the right choice, so that you can really both enjoy that and have that thing in your life for longer.
I'm really jealous of the fact that my grandmother bought one poster and that I didn't take it when it was time to divvy up the house possessions when she passed on. Nothing in my life lasts that long anymore, so I am constantly on the lookout for things that I can buy that have the greatest durability.
Chuck: There is a certain sense, and I saw this with my grandparents too, that yes, they would have things for a long time. I don't know if it is the quality of our production techniques today, or if it's the planned obsolescence, or if it's just the fact that we are- because we are such consumer driven we tend to want to consume more than higher quality.
I do struggle with that same thing, the toaster's a really good example. My grandmother had the same kind of pots and pans for a long time, and they were in really great shape. Ours we've had for a decade, but they're beat up and they're ready to kind of be moved on. Is there something there with maybe simplified down to quality over quantity?
Martenson: Absolutely. The heart of capitalism is selling more and more, and it's no secret anymore that planned obsolescence is a part of every design feature out there. There's no company that's interested in selling you a toaster that'll last sixty years, so they don't. Could they make one? Absolutely, we used to. It's actually not hard.
As an engineer, you'll know that you can engineer something to go through a hundred thousand or 300 thousand [inaudible 00:24:44] if you want to. But we don't do that for a lot of obvious reasons. One of the bigger ones is the profit motive. Yes, some things are of a higher quality today. I would think cars made in America much better today than 20 years ago.
Generally speaking, the things we buy are designed to last a short time. That's just part of the thinking. Also in the material chapter, what we're inviting people to do is take the other side of it, which is not what you want to buy, but maybe what do I not buy. There's both things I would like to introduce into my life, these are the new things that I would like to get that give me greater enjoyment, more resilience, but also what could I do without?
There's quite a lot that's been introduced into our lives that your grandparents and mine didn't have, and they seem to get buy okay. That's the flip side of the conversation to have.
Chuck: I want to talk to you about your garden. I have a garden, and for me it's a hobby. I grew up on a farm and my parents still have a rather big garden. I feel completely incompetent when I compare myself to my dad, who has this big garden and grows a lot of stuff.
I've actually talked to my dad about it, and he has said that he feels completely incompetent compared to his dad, who actually grew food that they ate. That they wouldn't have had, they would not have eaten. Is there something really important in terms of our own resiliency when it comes to gardening?
Martenson: Absolutely. During World War II there were these victory gardens and the country ramped up and grew a substantial portion of it's vegetable food in particular during that time on converted lawns. That would be a harder thing to do today because very few people actually have the knowledge of how to do that.
A mistake is thinking, "Oh, to make a garden I would just crate some bare dirt and I put some seeds in and stuff will grow. Is your own fathers and grandfathers, that lineage experience, you've discovered that there's been sort of a [inaudible 00:26:49] of knowledge as it's gone down through time. There's actually quite a bit of knowledge involved in gardening. I'm a 30 year gardener and I'm still- I kill stuff regularly.
It just does take time. I have a story in the book about when I went to this local, organic farmer. The guy's great, his place is just a garden of Eden. I asked him if he could teach me. I want to get up the curve quick, like how would I learn quickly.
I asked him how long it would take and he said, "Take about 10 years to get reasonably competent." I said, "No, no, no, no, I'm really smart guy, I'm really smart and I learn very fast." He goes, "Oh, oh, okay. It'll be 10 years." "Well no, hang on," I'm a little offended like, "No, I don't think you understand, I'm a pretty quick guy." He says, "No, no, it's 10 years because you could come here to my farm and learn my stuff probably very quickly, but as soon as you went a mile away your soil's going to be different and the bugs are going to be different because of the local surrounding micro climate of whatever trees and stuff you have there.
You're going to have to have the year where it rained too much and it rained too little, and the yellow bugs you've never seen before came up, and on and on and on. He said, "It just takes time to learn your particular spot, not just gardening in general."
There's a thing that matters when you're in a relationship with your land, your soil, your local environment, that really actually matters. It takes time, it just takes time. There's more failures than successes at the beginning. That's why I would encourage anybody who has the thought in their mind, "Oh, if I ever had to I'll start gardening," you might want to try it today.
By the way, it's one of my greatest sources of joy for me. I love, I just love planting stuff and growing it, and quality of life issue for me is [inaudible 00:28:40].
Chuck: One of the things that I really love about the community of people that you've kind of collected around peakprosperity.com, is the idea that there's a whole bunch of people kind of resurrecting these lost traditions or lost crafts, in a sense. Not only gardening, but other woodworking and other kind of things you would do with your hands.
I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm wondering in the future that you see for the United States and the world, are those things going to become more important? Do you think that learning those kind of crafts is going to be something that would have more value than we place on them today?
Martenson: Well absolutely. Now we're in a chapter which we call Knowledge Capital, which includes both the things you know and hopefully the overlap in another circle with the things that you've done, the experience you have. Book learning alone is kind of insufficient. But as well, just having a practiced craft without having a larger understanding of how it fits is not as optimal as having both of those at the same time; a good grounded understanding plus the experience.
Here, we're really talking about the skills we highly advise that people develop a lot of skills, as many as they can. Not that you have to develop all of them, but find the ones that really work for you. There's a lot of different skills out there.
We say skills, people think hammers and carpentry and stuff like that. But there are skills in relating and helping people with their emotional processing, there're skills in- I guess there's social skills, physical skills, financial skills, all of these different skills. Everybody's going to have a different gift that really they can bring in this moment in time. We would invite people to begin really bringing those gifts out.
That feeds back over into, as well, this idea of entrepreneurship, which is something that both Adam and I are adherent practitioners of working to have our own children become more conversed in. Because an entrepreneur is somebody who knows how to spot a place where they can add value at any point in time. There are entrepreneurs in prison, in places with no money, in a capital society. It doesn't matter. Entrepreneurship is more of a focus and an attitude than a specific thing you study.
Within that, you have to go through a process of figuring out what you're good at, what you're not good at, which is part of this whole process of gaining these skills. If somebody wants to learn how to distill whiskey out of sour mash, that's great. If somebody else wants to learn how to really support people in a time of grief, that's fantastic. Whatever these skills are, we think these are going to be really important.
I wove it back over to entrepreneurship because one of the key pieces of advice we have for people is to not be wedded to a single source of income. If you just get that one pay check from that one place and you lose that one job, that's a tough place to be in.
The future we see, if you add up all the three Es it basically says the practice our country's going to follow, and a bunch of others as well, is we're going to drive this ship until it hits a rock. When it does, there'll be a lot of upset people and we'll have another financial crisis or however this manifests. The bottom line will be that it's going to be a little bit trickier to get by. It's already tricky for a lot of people in this country.
For example, you can't believe the inflation statistics, right? Anybody who's earning the median income in this country knows that it is a lot harder to make it on that median income today than it was five years ago, or ten years ago. That's part of it. That erosion of ease is a process that's already happening and we see it continually.
One way to combat that is to trim your expenses as much as possible, which could involve growing some of your own food, having your own skills, not paying money for things you don't have to, doing without things you don't really, actually need. As well, figuring out other ways you can add value so that you might have different forms of income streams. Some of that income might be money and some of it might be coming to you in other forms, such as swapped exchanges of offerings to each other and things like that.
This is all sort of bleeding over into social capital as well, which is a really incredibly important form of capital. We think going to be one of the larger determinants of how much people thrive versus survive, how happy they are, how fulfilled they are both today and in some possibly uncomfortable future.
Chuck: I've heard you actually advise people to move if they're not in a place that is healthy and strong. How important are neighbors and how important is the community that you live in to your overall resilience?
Martenson: It's essential, absolutely essential both today and possibly tomorrow. If I lived in a place- I posted a video, I don't know, a month ago on my Facebook feed because I came across it of showing the police in Oakland, California at night just terrified, just driving away from a situation where there are a bunch of young gentlemen on a corner shooting pistols into the air.
Of the cultural capital that exists in Oakland, California in certain sections right now, is such that it's already risky even for law enforcement officers to be out and about in the dark of night. That's not a place I would personally feel either comfortable, or that I would have much agency in being able to change that. I would advise myself if I lived there to move.
We get to choose, and if we're living in a place that has really low social fabric, and maybe even a dangerous environment today, that will only get worse in the future would be a fairly easy- not even a prediction. That's not a trend extrapolation, that's just an observation.
There are times when we would say, "Yes, there are-" Local mileage varies tremendously in the story and the decision my wife and I made as we moved away from [inaudible 00:34:53] Connecticut, which is postcard perfect. It's a little tourist town, it's got these whaling ships. It's a tourist destination but it had really low social cohesion for us. We moved to a place in central western Massachusetts with a lot more community, a lot more social cohesion. We were able to plug into that. It was the best decision we've ever made. I like the soil, I like the others. But what really makes this place sync for us is the community of people that we were able to plug into and begin to weave those social ropes with.
Chuck: I have to say, going through the crash course and early on when I was getting introduced to your work, I got a worksheet that you put together saying here's kind of some checklist to build your own personal resiliency. I went through it and right away it said, "Meet your neighbors." Do you actually know the person living next door to you, and I knew them in an abstract way but I didn't know them in any kind of intimate way. Your worksheet prodded me to do that.
In some ways it's obvious, but why is it so difficult for us and why, maybe, was it so hard in the community you left and so easy, much easier, in the place you're in now?
Martenson: Great question, Chuck. On the larger level, one of the main critiques that I have sort of Kunstler style in all of this is that our culture is really been set up and optimized for certain things, but it's very transactional in nature. It's very extractive in its approach, and it's very much non-regenerative.
One of the more common complaints, if I could use that word, or difficulties that people will relate to me is that they feel lonely. They feel really isolated, even if they live on a street full of people they don't know them and that isolation gnaws at them. They internalize it because that's our culture. Our culture says, "If you're not happy it's because you're making a mistake somehow," or, "If you're poor and you're under a bridge, guess you messed up."
The truth is we have a very isolated culture and our human blueprint, our DNA, is to be relational and it's to be connected to each other. One of the things- I think we've done this wonderful experiment with having highly cost effective, isolated consumer driven culture. The future has got to belong to getting back into actual relationship, not just with each other as humans- that's the first step- but with the larger world as well.
It could be back in relation with all of life. That's really, I think, where the pendulum is swinging. Of course, it's really hard for an old dog like me who grew up under a really nuclear, isolated family structure to begin to experiment with like how would I do this differently. That's how life is, right?
It takes a little courage and it takes a little willingness to be vulnerable, but absolutely daring to be both of those things has been hands down one of the larger inputs to my emotional health and my sense of well being and connectedness. There's really a little invitation here which is like, "Hey, wake up, let's get back into life." Because just buying stuff and accumulating money for some downstream dream of retirement is living for the future instead of the present.
Chuck: Here we have the engineer interviewing the scientist, and we're talking about neighborhoods and community and emotional health. I wanted to ask you about emotional capital, because it's one of those things that you expect to find in a self help book somewhere. Touchy, feely kind of thing. Yet you do draw on the serenity prayer and some other things that you wouldn't expect to find in a book written by a scientist. How important is emotional health and why have you focused on it as intently as you have in this book?
Martenson: Chuck, I'm glad we got to this point. Sometimes I'm in these interviews, people evade this one because it feels a little touchy, feely or something. But emotional capital is the most important form of capital. I could give you somebody who's rich in all seven other forms, they're just knocking the cover off the ball on all of those. But if they fall to pieces at the drop of a hat or at the first whiff of actual difficulty, it won't matter how rich they are in the other forms.
This is a really critical part. When I first started The Crash Course, this was all data and information. I'm a scientist and a little bit of [guy 00:39:37]. I'm just a guy, I'm like, "I just be rational and this will all work, right?" Turned out it didn't.
What I discovered was that we humans are really operating with belief systems. These belief systems are a little bit like narratives, that they're just stories that run in our heads. If people hold a story as simple as this, that somebody held a story that says, "I'm lucky," it turns out quantitatively we can measure their life turns out very differently from somebody who holds this belief which is, "I'm unlucky."
How is it that holding a belief can actually shape this persons destiny, as it were, but it turns out it does. There's maybe a little [woo-woo 00:40:17] new age stuff in here, but there's scientific stuff we're discovering all the time, which is that because we hold a certain belief we see something and we reject or even don't see other things.
Having a belief system that's working for you, in the case of the lucky person, turns out to have measurable, wonderful effects compared to somebody who has a belief system that works against that. Here's how this ties together into this. The story we give in the book is of the former USSR 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, this soviet juggernaut falls apart. Big economic crisis, a major formerly economic superpower collapsed. We have a case history of one, what happens.
It devolves into Russia and the [satellite 00:41:03] states, and in Russia over the next eight years between 1989 and 1997, 54% of all deaths recorded in Russia had alcohol listed as either a causative or [inaudible 00:41:15]. That's 54%. A normal country it would be 4%.
Chuck: That's astounding, yeah.
Martenson: Russia drinks hard, but boy that's a big number. What happened was that these people, mostly middle aged men, they lost their jobs. They couldn't provide and protect for their families anymore, so they turned to drinking. What happened here was, say, Dmitri the pipe fitter had a lot of his personal story, his narrative was wrapped in how he provided for his family. When he lost his pipe fitting job that story went away and he was lost because his narrative broke.
Now what do I do? I only know pipe fitting and that's it. So they drank and sometimes drank too much. But we see this in the data already for people in the United States where suicide, in 2010, took over as the leading cause of non-natural death for adults in America. We see it in statistics around mental health, obesity, violence, you name it.
There are all these kinds of distress. We submit to you that emotional capital is both the explanatory piece of that, and the beacon around that. Because what happens is Dmitri the pipe cleaner, instead of saying, "I've lost my job. I feel a little bit worthless. Let me numb that worthlessness by drinking with my friends."
What if instead they said, "Wow, this whole economy is now shifting. It's shifting very, very rapidly. There's a lot of crisis. There's not as much need for pipe fitting, but there's all kinds of new needs popping up. "Wait a minute, how do I fit into those?" It turns out that period that we described, that same eight years, Chuck, was one of the most exciting periods of capital formation in all of Russia's history. Some people got fantastically rich. Maybe not the right way.
We can argue about [crosstalk 00:43:00], but it was true that this was- it both represented a closing and an opening at the same time. People who had their whole inner narrative wrapped around how they were tied to the closing part. They were unable to jump into enjoying the part that was opening, and that was solely determined by their emotional capital and by their ability to navigate into a period of change.
Chuck: Maybe go back to my grandfather again. Here's a guy who grew up in the great depression, lived in a barn. During the depression, the family that let him move in and live in the barn would feed him if he would work. You ask him, "What was your childhood like?" He tells all these happy stories about how great this was and that was.
When you actually dig into it, you're like, "You had parents who abandoned you and you lived in a barn." But he talks about how lucky he was because he had food and he had a purpose. You look today, I mean, I've got family members who are part of the same family tree who live incredibly affluent lives, and if you talk to them just seem very depressed about it all.
I don't want to paint like too broad of a brush, greatest generation and all that, but it does seem like the hardship in a sense is one way to share in that feeling of- it could either make you feel very fortunate for all you have, or make you feel very despaired at what you don't. I don't know, I almost feel like we've gotten a little emotionally soft by having way too much.
Martenson: We've done more than that. We've hamstrung ourselves by also removing ourselves, being in these isolated places. You mentioned people, like this was me in Mystic, Connecticut. From the outside looking in, anybody in the third world would be like, "Dude, you have so much," right? I absolutely did, but I was leading a very lonely but successful life.
It turns out that without a support system, I didn't even know how to begin asking for help, knowing that I needed help, knowing that things could be different. I had no frame of reference whatsoever. I could look back on that period and say, "Wow, I was drinking a lot more than I do now." I was fundamentally, I think, not nearly as happy as I am today through no fault of my own.
I just didn't have a model, I didn't come from a culture that let me know that there was another way. But now we know. We know that we can build up our emotional capital, we know that social interactions and the threads and ropes we build with people.
It's not just how many people we know, who we know their names, we know what they do. But really knowing people, like why they are the way they are. Getting to know ourselves. These are actually keys to both resilience and happiness. These are all things that I've stumbled across. As soon as I did I was like, "Wow, look at this stuff I discovered! Oh wait, people have known this forever."
Chuck: I know we're getting short on time, so I want to ask you about time capital. Really I have these two chronometers that travel around with me. They mark time, they remind me that the days are slipping by. The course being my two daughters. I've got a 9 year old and an 11 year old. I know you have kids.
We start with financial capital in this conversation, which is important. But I thought your chapter on time capital was just beautiful and really, really essential. What is time capital and how do we kind of maximize time capital?
Martenson: Time capital is the one thing that everybody has less of today than they had yesterday. We all share that, it doesn't matter how rich or how poor, any of that. The invitation in the time capital part is to understand that we only have a limited time on this earth. Nobody knows how much they have, right? We all like to think that we'll all live to be the age of our oldest grandparent or something. But we don't know.
In time capital, it is really this invitation to get back to the present, get back to how are you being in this moment, and to get away from the idea that you know how much time you've got left. To be alive is a sacred thing. To really understand how magical it is to be alive, is to be renewed with gratitude as well. That gratefulness your grandfather talked about that somehow seems illusive.
Time, understanding time, is a way to get back into and define gratitude for being here, being here at all. Being here and being healthy, being here and making the most of what we can. There's a little thread of urgency as well. I don't know how long our current system is going to persist.
Is it a year, is it a week, is it 10 more years, is it 100? I don't know. But I do know that it's unsustainable. The urgency comes in with saying there's really no time like right now to begin taking that first or your next step into greater resilience, greater connectedness with your life today and with the people around you.
I feel like I really kind of wrote that chapter for myself, because I fell into the trap of believing that I had lots of time. Your chronometers will tell you that even as you hold that belief something else is happening, which is called time and it's racing by. That's really a portion of what's in that particular chapter.
Chuck: You wrote in the book that resiliency is a journey. I want to know kind of as a closing thought, what was your inspiration for this book? What are you trying to achieve by writing this book?
Martenson: It's in the subtitle on the front cover, which is Creating a World Worth Inheriting. I'm of the mind that the current trajectory that humans are on is one that's unsustainable, it could easily, if allowed to unconsciously persist, lead us to bad outcomes that are avoidable.
And that I would really love to begin both alerting people to what those trends are, but more importantly to note that we can begin living today in ways that actually enhance our lives, and begin to steer the ship in a new direction away from those shoals that we can see coming.
The fact that we can do all of these things and have a happier, more filled, enriching life while being regenerative rather than extractive in our practices, while being more relational and grounded in those relationships, than transactional and how we deal with each other and the world around us.
We can have this fuller experience that's at the same time better for us and better for the world and better for the people who come after us. That, to me, feels like a win win win, and that's my life's work and my mission is to just keep raising that and putting that out there. That's the big, grand vision and dream of why I do what I do.
Chuck: Chris Martenson, it's been beautiful to talk to you. I want to make sure people are plugged into your site peakprosperity.com. You can go search on iTunes or any of your podcasting sites for the Peak Prosperity podcast. You'll get weekly, bi-weekly, pretty frequent podcasts with Chris interviewing guests. They're fascinating, lots of great stuff there.
You have inspired me by the way you have made your videos and your worksheets and so much of your stuff available for people. It's really an inspiring way you've gone about trying to make the world a better place. I thank you for everything you've done and for taking the time to chat with us today. Thank you so much.
Martenson: Well thank you, Chuck, it's been my pleasure to talk with you and to whoever was listening.
Chuck: All right everybody, thanks for listening and keep doing what you can to build a Strong Town. Take care.