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Book Review: Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course”

The first thing to understand about Chris Martenson, the respected financial consultant and commentator, is that he’s a PhD in pathology who is, as a result, very comfortable with complex, technical ideas. He’s also a clear, concise writer. In his new book Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment he’ll toss off sentences like “Money is a tertiary abstraction that gets its meaning from real forms of wealth,” and by the time a reader sees this, the meaning is both clear and profound because Martenson has done such a good job of laying the necessary foundation.

The “gloom and doom” genre is pretty crowded, of course, beginning with Robert Prechter’s Conquer the Crash and running through heavyweights like Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers and James Turk, all critiquing basically the same financial train wreck. For a book to join this list it has to present new information in a highly engaging way, and Martenson has succeeded. His chapter on the myriad lies the US government is telling us is, by itself, worth the price of the book. One tidbit: 35% of US GDP is fictitious, thanks to statistical tricks like hedonic adjustments and “owners equivalent rent.”

His take on energy covers the obligatory Peak Oil but also lays out a Peak Coal thesis that isn’t yet common knowledge. Turns out that just as we’re running out of cheap oil, we’ve already mined the best coal and are now working our way through the less desirable grades. So despite rising volumes of coal mined, the total amount of energy the US is getting from coal has plateaued. He also explains how fossil fuels produced such a radical change in developed country lifestyles in less than a century: Gasoline is such a concentrated form of energy that one gallon is equivalent to 350-500 hours of human labor. A middle class American family thus owns an army of “energy slaves” that dwarfs the resources of the richest ancient kings.

Another surprisingly useful chapter covers the power of exponential growth. Pretty much every half-serious investor thinks they already understand compounding (I certainly thought I did), but Martenson’s rigorous, data-rich analysis held my attention. Did you know, for instance, that when something is compounding at a steady rate each doubling produces not just twice the previous total, but more than all previous doublings combined?

The power — and destructiveness — of this final doubling is the book’s underlying theme. Debt, of course, is growing exponentially and this alone could destroy the world as we know it. But the problem goes far beyond debt. The US money supply, global population and energy use, the depletion of topsoil and fisheries are all heading into final, catastrophic doublings. This convergence of crises could, says Martenson,  produce more than a financial crash. We’re looking at the end of exponential growth — while living in societies built on the premise that exponential growth will never end. Here’s the Amazon link.

32 thoughts on "Book Review: Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course”"

  1. when a country, particularly an empire, starts to use the printing press to pay for escalating debt, the game is almost over. History supports this observation. The best thing we can do as individuals is to prepare the best we can. Maybe even lawyers and politicians will have to start wearing wigs again to hide the poor hygiene, scabs and head lice that comes with a hard life.

  2. Exponential (steady) growth will end; Either we will choose to do it ourselves through control and self-discipline, which doesn’t appear to have been working, or nature (human and environmental) will do it for us with disease, pestilence, war and famine.

  3. Most comments miss the point. The way we’ve organized ourselves economically is both corrupt and unsustainable. All you pollyannas lost your vision a long time ago!

    1. Yes, certainly we have organized ourselves economically corrupt and unsustainable. What do you suggest we do about it?

      1. To learn what we should do, read my book, “This Bloodless Liberty: Congress’ 10 Lies That are Destroying America — And How We The People can Reclaim our Currency, Constitution, Liberty, and Way of Life”. Available at Amazon.

        But whether youy choose to read my book or not, several points can be made about the fallacious premise of Martenson’s book — thus of the directions that this comment thread must take.

        First, to make any sense at all, Americans must speak in terms of *American* trajectory and proclivities, not those of the rest of the world. It’s silly to think that we can influence other nations, except by example.
        America’s Christian norms for 200 years (ca 1620-1835) served as a positive example to the nations.

        Secondly: economics is 90% ethics and 10% math, yet economists are able to use the 10% to befuddle and confound the masses, leaving the 90% (ethics) untouched. Similarly, the American constitutional republic is founded on 90% law and 10% politics; if We The People had the presence of mind to enforce the law, politics would follow, and (as I will demonstrate) economics in its train. Eventually; not overnight.

        Americans should know our history — not the fabrications of government schools, but the real events and players. Over the past 150 years, the creature of our Constitution became our master; how and when did this happen?

        It began under the pretense of ending slavery; shrewd mercantilists forged a conquering force over the sovereign States and People that created the federal government. Now, national plunder could be a matter of buying off just a few politicians rather than having to shop for puppets in three dozen state legislatures and governors’ offices. Shrewd.

        “The War to Enslave the States” is the only accurate name for that debacle, because that is precisely what it did: forged a national military for the first time, to put down the insurgents in all those independent States of America, forging a new, totally unconstitutional regime that turned our rule of law on its ear.

        Then they began the process of “legal counterfeiting” and fraudulent banking that set the stage for this present mess into which the Federal Reserve has sucked most of the developed world (as it has done before).

        Before reading Martenson’s book you should have some historical foundation under your feet. Disabuse yourself of your public school indictrination about The War to Enslave the States, for instance. A good starting place would be either of Thomas DiLorenzo’s books on Lincoln; another good Lincoln detox is “America’s Caesar” by Greg Durand.

        You should know how huge a Lincoln supporter Karl Marx was; how Marx’s teachings were handily used by the GOP from its inception to curry favor with the masses; how John Fremont (the first GOP candidate) was an open, avowed Marxist –as were many of Lincoln’s officers. To learn more about what the GOP will never change anything, read the book “Red Republicans and Lincoln’s Marxists” by Kennedy and Benson.

        Back to the money and credit issue. To learn how old the Federal Reserve scam really is, I suggest you read “Blood Money: The Civil War and the Federal Reserve” by attorney John Remington Graham.

        The other side of the mercantilist horde is the military industry; its patrons in Big Oil, communications, and other industries issue its marching orders as it employs millions of Americans — many of them otherwise unemployable. To learn how for the past 125 years, the U.S. federal military has been a free-of-charge mercenary force for the ‘Military Industrial Complex’ as Eisenhower called it, read Stephen Kinzer’s whirlwind survey called “Overthrow: A Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq”.

        The federal government operates not as an empire in the classic sense. Instead, it is a crafty mercenary for private interests in many industries — not the least of these being money/credit/banking, the most direct means of plundering one’s fellow man.

        So. Back to the Malthusian aspect of Martenson’s thesis: the end of the world as we know it. Humans have an amazing history of working around plagues, shortages, and catastrophe; but never under a worldwide ‘plan’ to do so. Human megatrends are more organic than geopolitical or legal.

        This is a good thing; we won’t stand for world government. Moreover, human nature and the character of human institutions would make it a nightmare. But most of all, in American context it’s a moot issue; the Supreme Law of the Land does not allow for world government over us, or even for the universal Leviathan we now suffer.

        Yet a world government — an ‘earth empire’ — would be the only legal, rational, and logistical way to achieve the macroeconomic/geopolitical goals being bandied about here. If such an empire existed, it would be inhuman and unethical on the microeconomic scale. Tower of Babel II.

        As I said before, history is replete with examples of supply-demand peaks and valleys. Humanity always works past bottlenecks, real or imagined, by the grace of God.

        Yes. The grace of God.

        It was by that same grace, at the height of the European ‘Enlightenment’, that a group of men framed a form of human law among consenting ‘nations’ (former colonies, then victorious Confederated States) that were spinning in multiple quandaries about their futures: commerce, forms of currency, rule of law, and more.

        That group of men devised the highest law in America. The U.S. Constitution is flawed but still the most brilliant plan for limited republican government ever devised. Only if it is obeyed, of course.

        It was obeyed by the new government for something like 70 years; then it has been openly, egregiously, perennially violated for 150 years.

        The author’s Malthusian tendency to put depleted world fisheries and fiat currency in the same basket makes a distasteful mess. But even if we split out merely the currency and debt issue, he doesn’t touch root causes.

        The fact is this: what now passes for ‘money’ has been illegal since the passage of the ‘Legal Tender’ Acts and later the Federal Reserve Act and follow-on legislation. Federal Reserve Notes have always been counterfeit scrip.

        According to Article I Section 8 of the highest law in America, Congress never had authority to issue such a counterfeiting concession to a private organization, or to use paper if Congress did so itself. According to Article I Section 10 of the highest law in America, the sovereign States have never had the authority to use or accept it — or any other worthless scrip. By law, they can oONLY use gold and silver coin in their transactions.

        Thus, before talking about depleted fisheries in Indonesia or even depleted gas reserves in Wyoming, we should stick to our knitting before we are like Mexico — slung from pillar to post by terrorist thugs who know no law.

        It is a legal (constitutional) fact that our congresses for five generations have renewed a counterfeiting concession to a cabal of crime families in the banking industry. This banking cartel with the wickedly brilliant moniker ‘Federal Reserve’ in fact is no more federal than Federal Express and provides zero reserves of specie or commodities to the larger pool of sharks in banking.

        James Madison and Thomas Jefferson considered these things, and wrote copiously about such dangers as we have brought on ourselves. Read the 3-volume “Republic of Letters” and see that none of this need continue for one year more than we want it to. We must simply enforce the law that those founders passed on to us for keeping.

        My book proposes a simple method of “tactical force-massing” right from home; a way for productive Americans to leave politics and embarkj on informed self-government, enforcing the U.S. Constitution and restoring the State-over-federal hierarchy implicit in that Supreme Law.

        Let’s restore rule of law while we can. Then we can talk about depleted fisheries and Peak Oil theories.

  4. “The power — and destructiveness — of this final doubling is the book’s underlying theme. Debt, of course, is growing exponentially and this alone could destroy the world as we know it. But the problem goes far beyond debt. The US money supply, global population and energy use, the depletion of topsoil and fisheries are all heading into final, catastrophic doublings. This convergence of crises could, says Martenson, produce more than a financial crash. We’re looking at the end of exponential growth — while living in societies built on the premise that exponential growth will never end.”

    Lisa stated: “The fact is ..we are in a time of exponential population explosion where food and fuel are going to be very very big issues. And now we are starting to see governments fail because they literally can NOT sustain the physical needs of their people.”
    Years ago, I could forecast the top of a housing bubble cycle when I felt the inflated price could no longer double. I don’t remember whether I read that somewhere or just surmised it.
    Something like an airplane going into a stall from trying to climb to fast without a capable engine to keep climbing. This might also be the case with the price of precious metals and population growth. This might even hold true with the out-of-control arrogance of our government. At some point the system will fall hard because the government looses touch with the engine that made it great in the first place.

  5. Brad –

    In short, get Government the Hell out of any/every aspect of where it is not Constitutionally prescribed to be, and the unleashing of the human spirit of ingenuity, innovation, progress and prosperity is at our fingertips – in almost any endeavor one could imagine.

    When one looks at our current socio-economic woes, one cannot escape the fact that it is the stifling, Liberty-robbing, incentive-crushing, fiefdom-createing and cynicism-inducing properties of government meddling gone out-of-control, that holds our future hostage and not much else.

    We have an abundance of natural resources and the talent to unleash those resources in a manner that is safe and in many cases, renewable for generations in the future. The problem is, we have an equally Negative Force in that of Petty Government Bureaucracy to overcome first!

    These are not the ramblings of some Patrick Henry ‘kook’. What was set for us 250 years ago is as good for today as it was then. Time & technology may change, human nature doesn’t…

    1. Agent P, I’m not looking for an argument at all. Just a chat, if you will. If we, as you advocate, “get government the hell out of the way” you and I wouldn’t be having this communication as there would be no internet.

      How do you explain that our government, from which you take issue, is the resulting product of the constitution that you support? How do you resolve that conflict?

      1. Saying that the current government is a product of our Constitution is like saying the oil soaked pelicans in on the Gulf Coast are the product of the Gulf of Mexico.

        The Gulf has been corrupted by oil and the Constitution has been corrupted by politicians. Each are slimy and hard to clean up after the mess has been made.

  6. Does the book offer a different economic model than the current one based on exponential growth? Of course in a finite environment things cannot growth exponentially forever; the organisms will balance to an equilibrium. What then?

  7. @Agent P & Bruce C.;

    Interesting read guys. My 2 cents to your meme is a long held observation that our challenge is no longer portioning a scarcity but rather distributing the abundance of goods and services.

    All of our business models, indeed supply and demand itself, is based upon scarcity, real, imagined or created and imposed. When abundance is achieved, prices and demand collapses.

    How do we maintain price amid abundance without imposing artificial controls?

    For example, I’ve read that we can produce enough protein to support a population upwards of 15 billion people. It gives pause to consider if our protein and procreation capacity should be unleashed.

    1. “I’ve read that we can produce enough protein to support a population upwards of 15 billion people.”

      have you seen, “soylent green?”

  8. Excellent points Agent P.

    However, I think the true nature of the situation – the true meaning of these impending problems (be they real or imaginary) – is that people are ready for a new modality of consciousness. I know that may sound embarrassingly corny but from what I’ve studied over the years I believe people are ready for a new, more correct and expansive, understanding of themselves and the nature of reality. That is what will be needed to “solve” these problems. The conventional framework, the “official line of consciousness”, is what must evolve.

    This isn’t the format to really explain what I mean, but I’ll give you a practical example of what I mean: The true meaning of an energy crisis is the manifestation of the limitations of one set of mass beliefs about the nature of energy and its source. Fundamentally speaking, man must somehow recognize and accept that energy does not have to come from an “external” source, that it does not belong to “God” (which in all of the world religions is most definitely outside of the self, practically by definition). This does not necessarily mean, however, that a new form of energy will not be technological (like “cold fusion”). But what it does mean is that no new viable forms will be discovered until certain fundamental beliefs have changed.

  9. When anybody starts talking about population – or overpopulation as the case may be, it piques my attention. Not because I necessarily agree, but to read more carefully to see just how the ‘population’ thing factors into their overall worldview, by how often they refer to it as a ‘problem’. In many who profess that increasing population is a dire problem, there seems to be just a hint of Elitism in my view. We have now (and have had for some time), the ability to feed the world. It is not necessarily a shortage of food, nor even climate that gets in the way, as much as it is political fiefdom and the desire to control others that hinders our ability to sustain life on Earth.

    I have noticed a strong correlation between those who subscribe to the peak oil thing, and their equally strident position on population and the ‘control’ of same. Control being the central theme. All in the name of ‘sustainability’ of course. Control Freaks inhabit many different spaces – politics being the most obvious, but they thrive in areas outside – and seemingly at odds with Central Planning and politics at times, but when push comes to shove they can easily be seen for both sides of the same coin that they are.

    1. “I have noticed a strong correlation between those who subscribe to the peak oil thing, and their equally strident position on population and the ‘control’ of same.”

      This is nonsense. Most people should understand by now that population is not growing exponentially and that we should see a peak some time in the next five decades. That does not change the fact that oil discoveries peaked decades ago and that the production of light sweet crude reached a plateau in 2005 even though hundreds of billions of new investment poured into the sector thanks to increased prices. Arguments against Peak Oil need to be logical and backed up by facts, not based on correlations and observations that may or not be valid about SOME of the people making them.

      From what I can see the facts are clearly on the side of the Peak Oil proponents. After years of stalling the EIA and IEA acknowledged the depletion issue and reduced their peak production estimates by more than 20%. At this time they are scrambling to come up with alternative sources because they know that reliance on increases coming from conventional sources are no longer credible. The simple fact is that the developing world has seen the way that we live and likes it. Its growing middle classes are buying cars and other products that need an increase of both electricity and liquid fuels. Depletion from producing fields is running at more than 6% per year, which means that we need to replace the equivalent production of Venezuela and Kuwait each year with oil from new wells. Sorry but I do not see how that happens.

      1. Every human on Earth right now could easily fit into the state of Texas. The population scam is right up there with the ozone hoax, global warming hoax, WMD’s, global cooling, islamic terrorism, henny penny……

        1. Sure you could fit every human into Texas and they’d each have a 30 foot by 30 foot patch of dirt to call home, to raise their food, to poop in, to collect rain from. Sounds great to me.

          Technically you could fit the earth’s population in Rhode Island and still have room to stretch you arms, but that has nothing to do with the fact that further population growth is going to make our problems worse.

  10. Too bad, Chris Martenson’s beliefs about money are mostly incomplete and thus false.

    Crash Course, the web site fails to express chief aspects of the monetary system of the U.S. today: fiduciary money and token money.

    Wrongly, Martenson claims that U.S. is money by fiat, which is not. The U.S. government does not set an exchange value for the dollar.

    The only bit about U.S. money that Martenson gets right is regarding its legal tender status.

    Martenson has tried to cash in on the angst over the post-2007 credit peak and subsequent economic collapse. Martenson has taped into the marketplace of conspiracy theorists à la Alex Jones and survivalists à la survivalblog, thesurvivalistblog, shtfplan.com and others to create a Money Survivalist blog and subsequent product offering.

    Hucksters come alive in every age if uncertainty and false belief.

    1. Oh come on. Chris Martenson was already wealthy before he devoted himself to educating people, and he’s given up a higher income in taking this route. And you couldn’t have given your dismissal of him much thought if you were putting him in the same category as Alex Jones. Martenson is not a conspiracy theorist, and Jones’ view of Malthus and “Limits to Growth” is essentially the opposite of Martenson’s.

      If you don’t believe in simple altruism, you could see Martenson as trying to engender larger (community-level) solutions to the coming problems, so that the world his children grow up in does not completely suck. Certainly that’s a nobler endeavor than whining about semantics and making egregiously bad judgments about one’s fellow human beings.

    2. Chris Martenson also shows his face and will stand right behind his word. Unlike a person yourself…most likely fat and sobbering behind a computer screen calling people names.

      You obviously have not read the book or have even taken the several hours to listen to the course.

      Please don’t speak unless YOU look in the mirror first.

    3. But Martenson is right. It is fiat money. And as such it will suffer the fate of all fiat money in history; its purchasing power will fall until it reaches the value of the commodity that is used to make it.

      The data shows us that since Nixon closed the gold window the Federal Reserve Note has already lost more than 80% of its purchasing power. It won’t be long until it loses 80% of what is left. The only thing that is preventing an outright collapse is its comparison to other fiat currencies. At this time the Federal Reserve Note looks like the healthiest horse in the fiat currency glue factory. While that means that its value could rise against other currencies its purchasing power will continue to decline and its end will still be the same.

    4. … All of which adds up to you totally missing Martenson’s point, which is that we are living on a finite planet and pursuing an economic policy of infinite growth. At some point, we run up against the limits, and the evidence indicates that some of the crucial limits are already on the horizon.

      And, yes, we know about Thomas Malthus and how his predictions were avoided, largely due to our new-found ability to exploit energy resources such as coal and oil. But what to do when the coal and oil are depleted? Of course, some new energy source could come online to save the day once again. Solar and wind energy come to mind as possible sources to fill in the gap. But from the tone of your comments, I’m guessing that you sneer at these so-called “green energy” approaches.

      One problem with such sources is that the energy is widely dispersed, as opposed to coal and oil, which very conveniently concentrated eons of energy into compact, easily obtainable and highly protable forms. It is difficult to see how wind and solar power can be brought online without enormous infrastructure expense to concentrate the energy. Even then, power generated in this fashion will not be anywhere nearly as reliable as coal and oil without large additional expendatures on energy storage or transport systems.

      The bottom line is what Martenson is focusing on: abundant cheap energy translates into a higher standard of living. Expensive, scarce energy translates into a lower standard of living. The same argument applies to land fertility, fish populations, and availability of other vital resources such as copper and rare earth metals. It’s pretty clear that the days of abundant, cheap energy are drawing to a close.

      I do not personally feel that we are facing an unaviodable catastrophe. I have no doubt that we can live far more frugally than we live now and still maintain a decent standard of living. But it is clear to me that we do face some significant changes, and some of those changes will be unpleasant for either the rank-and-file or for the economic elite, or possibly both. If the economic elite want to maintain the present course, then the rank-and-file will be reduced to serfdom. If the rank-and-file are to maintain anything like a decent standard of living, then the functioning of the economy is in for a pretty serious shake-up, which willl work against the interests of the financial elite. At the moment, the economic elite have opened a wide lead…

      We do indeed live in an “interesting” age…

    1. Exactly.

      Far too many don’t get “peak oil”. Peak oil means the maximum that can be found, pumped, shipped, refined, shipped and sold.

      Dummies believe it means “running out.”

      1. Most are not “dummies” as you call them. Just like YOURSELF, they are just ignorant for now untill the information sinks in. This is how we all learn. I hope a more mature response equals less name calling.

  11. After going through the crash course on Mr. Martenson’s blog…it all makes sense with the world and all of our issues. Of course the problem is bigger then any one man could even fathom…but IT MAKES THE MOST SENSE!

    The fact is ..we are in a time of exponential population explosion where food and fuel are going to be very very big issues. And now we are starting to see governments fail because they literally can NOT sustain the physical needs of there people.

    And as we are now starting to witness an extraordinary time on Earth. It is absolutely scary. I use to think that the Earth would like cities in the “star wars” movie..but I am not sure it has enough resources to get us that far.

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