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Interview with The Humm

18 March 2009
The End of Illusion?
A Conversation with Mike Nickerson

We've all been exposed to the reactionary, hand-wringing media reports on
the "economic downturn." So it was a refreshing break to read Mike Nickerson's
latest article "The Upside of an Economic Downturn" when it showed up in my
email inbox. Afterwards, I decided that it was high time to sit down and
pick Mike's brain on the topic of global economic issues and people's ability to
respond locally.

The Humm:

When I first read Life, Money & Illusion it seemed that the ideas weren't
really in the mainstream. Talking to people about the themes in the book was

Mike Nickerson:

They weren't as interested then; now they want to know. That's definitely a
change. With increasing number of stories being reported, people are
starting to put the pieces together and are seeing that there are systemic
problems, not just isolated incidents. Since the book came out there has
been sort of a 1-2-3. As we began touring with the book, An Inconvenient
Truth, Al Gore's movie, started to show. We started to get people in our
audiences who had seen the film, and the level of interest went up. Filling
the atmosphere with carbon dioxide is an example of the human family having
grown to fill the planet, and that's our theme. We were able to tie in with

When the price of oil went up last summer people largely forgot about
climate change -
they were concerned about gas prices. Finally the establishment acknowledged
that there is such a thing as peak oil. There will come a time when we can
only pump so much, and if we want more the price will just have to go up
until some people have to stop buying it. And then came this economic
kerfuffle. The same theme - that the human family has filled the planet -
plays out there in a way that highlights how our economic structures are
based on the exponential expansion of the money supply. Somewhere around the
early 70's gold and the dollar were separated because there wasn't enough
gold to pay for all of the things that this expanding money supply was
wanting to pay for. So it was detached from the material world. Of course it's
grown enormously since then, but it's all supported by some sort of faith
that if things are said to be worth more, then they really are worth more.

We've also had a series of bubbles: the savings and loan bubble was the
first one I learned about; then we had junk bonds, dot-com, real estate in
general and then sub-prime mortgages. The need for a bubble economy comes
down to the fact that there isn't enough earth to back up the exponentially
expanding money supply, which is essential for the current system to
continue. This brings us back to Life, Money & Illusion, which says that the
system had its place at a time when human beings were a small presence on
the planet, but now that we cover the planet with our resource extraction
and waste we can't grow as much - it's an illusion to think that we can.

The Humm:

In your writing you point out that new money was being created by loaning
out money that didn't exist, based on capital that wasn't really there. It's
was just a vast imaginary engine churning out new money.


It's really a shame that those billions and trillions of dollars of bail-out
money went to people who manipulate columns of figures on account sheets and
not to the people who produce our food. There are no real goods produced at
the end of the day.
Relatively little. If the money created turns around and decides it wants to
buy real goods,
however, then we'll have inflation coming out of our ears.

There's more money than stuff. By numerous orders of magnitude. I've been
using the figure one in a hundred - for every one dollar spent on goods and
services, one hundred dollars are spent on financial speculation. I was
recently talking to a Prof. from Carleton and he says it's more like a
thousand to one or several thousand to one. But it's changing fast. I keep
an eye on the stock market - the bubble is deflating.

The Humm:

What does that do to the stuff that people need?


That depends on where we get the stuff from. Almost everywhere we go there
are community supported agriculture projects, and that's always the first
place I tell people to start. Actually the first place to start is by
enjoying yourself - don't look to buying stuff for satisfaction. The next
question is where do we get our food? Any place where people can recycle the
nutrients that are in a community back into the soil and back into the
community again, those communities can live forever. That's the nature of
life - it's always been a cyclic, organic, biological process. To get our
food from thousands of miles away is a huge liability and people are
starting to realize that.

The Humm:

Given that you've been looking at this for longer than most
people, are you hopeful that attention is now shifting in this direction?


It's encouraging, but the reason it's happening is not as
auspicious as it might be. There have been at least two big waves of public
interest since I started studying this. In the early 70's we had the oil
shock, and the United Nations conference on the environment in Stockholm.
That was the first time the globe got together and said "it looks like we're
having some environmental problems, what can we do?" There was an increase
in interest then. In 1987 the Bruntland Commission report came out - this
incredibly accredited group of people were appointed from around the world
to go out and talk to people about the problems. They concluded: it's true,
we're overwhelming the earth.

They documented the troubles and they told us we need to learn to develop
sustainably - that's where the phrase "sustainable development" came from.
In both of those situations, it was stated very clearly that if we continue
to do these sorts of things we'll be in trouble. Now we're in trouble. It
has people's attention in a much different way because it's starting to
impinge on economic growth.

So, the good news, if you can call it that, is that since we only seem to
learn when we're in crisis, we're going to be in crisis until we solve the
problem. We can no longer say "Oh, that's not really a problem," and expect
it to go away.

In terms of the things that we need to be doing, we're currently facing a
situation where there's less to go around. Do you think people will
recognize the new reality and change their approach to work and money?

My friend Howard Jerome had a wonderful comment on that. He said: "We can no
longer have everything that we want, but we can be more than we've ever imagined."
We've been ripped off so badly in order to become consumers. We used to have
culture, we used to get together with friends to talk about things and sing
and dance and play sports. There was a real vibrancy to the nature of human
communities. We miss that in our souls. We're human beings; not human
havings. We've had to let that go because in order to make an enormous
economy grow you've pretty well got to get everybody working all of the
time, and when they're not working you've got to get them to go off and
spend their money to consume all of the stuff that they're making. I
encourage people to think about what we lost to get into this dead-end route
and to think about reclaiming it.

The Humm:

What are some of the first steps people can take without becoming terrified
and going and sitting in front of their TVs?


Learn to live lightly and seek satisfaction in what life offers rather than
through consumption. Then learn as much as you can about the situation so
you can find inspiration for applying your creativity to solutions. Life,
Money & Illusion tried very hard not to gloss over the fact that we face
great challenges, and to presents the reasons
for them. It's not about a lot of bad will, it's just circumstances and
opportunities and things that were more or less acceptable until we touched
planetary limits. Filling the earth is a fundamental change that requires a
fundamental change in how we manage things. It's really a very exciting
time. Ours is the generation that will see the human family transform from
its long childhood and adolescence to a mature form.

There's a lot of information out there that scares people. It's designed to
get their attention. But it also turns them off - they shut down and say
"What's the point?" I get to come along and, while admitting that we've got
problems, point out that solutions exist in this direction. If we apply our
creativity and imagination, we can build a world that
works within the limits of our planet and we can have more fun while we're
doing it. There are creatures that have been on Earth for hundreds of
millions of years that have got very little going for them compared to what
human beings have. The idea that we
have to succumb and go extinct because we can't make profits grow forever is
just ludicrous.

Mike Nickerson <> is a resident of Lanark Highlands,
a longtime environmental activist, popular educator, and the author of Life,
Money & Illusion

The Humm Interview, by Rob Riendeau