Positive Energy Conference

Findhorn resident Mattie Porte shares information about the current conference on positive energy at

This is one of my favourite times to be here as a member of staff of the Findhorn Foundation. It's a time when our whole community pulls together, everyone contributing their skills and resources and talents to ensure our guests have a deep and meaningful experience. It's also a time when our community is enriched and enlivened by the co-mingling of thoughts and ideas and creative expression of both fellow community residents and guests alike.

It's my job to do the online reporting for our conferences so I have a bird's-eye view of what happens on stage and behind the scenes. Each day we bring reports of events and presentations to the Foundation's website. There's also a discussion forum for people to engage from afar.

This week-long conference has been in the making for 15 months, bringing together some of the world's leading thinkers, activists and practitioners to explore creative community responses to peak oil and climate change. And what better place to do so than right here in the heart of the Findhorn community itself.

Among the presenters are:

Joanna Macy, a teacher and author, is the creator of the Work That Reconnects. Drawing from Buddhist practices, systems theory, and love for life, her workshops empower environmental and social activists worldwide. Her many books include Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives Our World; World As Lover, World As Self; Widening Circles, A Memoir; and translations of Rilke's poetry.

Dorothy Maclean is a co-founder of the Findhorn Foundation and community. She continues to dedicate her life to teaching and supporting others to make their own inner connection to God and to nature's intelligence. Described as a true planetary citizen, she has recently released a new book, Come Closer: Messages from the God Within. Dorothy is our keynote speaker.

Richard Heinberg is one of the world’s foremost peak oil educators. He is a Research Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, a member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and a core faculty member of New College of California where he teaches a programme on Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community. He is the author of seven books including The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.

Richard Olivier is Artistic Director of Olivier Mythodrama, a unique leadership development consultancy. He was a leading theatre director for 10 years. His work is at the leading edge of bringing theatre into the development of authentic leadership. Richard is the founder of Mythodrama — a new form of experiential learning which combines great stories with psychological insights, creative exercises and organisational development techniques.

Megan Quinn is the Outreach Director of Community Service, Inc. She served as Master of Ceremonies for the first, second, and third US conferences on Peak Oil and Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and at the Peak Oil and Environment conference in Washington DC in May 2006. Megan has a degree in Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She co-wrote and co-produced her organisation's documentary, "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil."

Rob Hopkins is founder of Transition Town Totnes, the first transition town project in the UK. Transition Towns are an emerging approach to enabling towns to prepare for peak oil and climate change and act as catalysts for the community to explore how the end of the age of cheap oil will affect them. They are based on the simple assertion that life beyond cheap oil and gas could be preferable to the present, but only if we engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination.

The week has begun by encouraging participants to open to their creativity, to their passion. Joanna Macy is here to lead a two-day exploration of deep ecology while Richard Olivier will lead a one-day workshop on Green Leadership using the themes in Shakespeare's As You Like It. We then transition in the second half of the week to look at the many positive responses that are already emerging from communities around the world.

The last two days of the conference is a mini-event, From Crisis to Opportunity, in which we will be welcoming local members of the Moray community here in Scotland, along with Richard Lochhead, a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP).

Unlike some conferences where the presenter speaks and the audience is simply the audience, this is different in that it is largely experiential. This conference requires pure presence, full participation, the courage to see what we've done to the world, and an unflinching dedication to the healing of the planet for future generations to come. In her opening remarks on day one, conference host Margot Henderson said, "We are calling for a great turning — a monumental moment of grace." She then asked participants to consider the question, "What am I standing for? As we stand here together, what am I standing for at this time upon the earth?"

Keynote speaker, Dorothy Maclean, reminded us that we are nature and we can use our minds to connect or disconnect. We have freewill, a choice about our fate. Joanna Macy echoed this and encouraged us to find the solidarity that is our birthright — to feel deep connection — and to dedicate our work this week to shedding our fear. This will help us take ourselves seriously as part of the self-healing of our world. Joanna believes that Findhorn is the perfect place to do this work at this time because we are unafraid of deep feeling.

The energy of the sessions, thus far, has run deep and there is a genuine desire among the collective to go boldly forth toward what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning or others call the Ecological or Sustainability Revolution. But the exploration has really only just begun....

For more information about the Positive Energy Conference please visit the Findhorn website.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?