3E Intelligence

American journalist Richard Heinberg is one of the most prolific writers of the peak oil community. His books The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003), Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004), and The Oil Depletion Protocol (2006) have become real classics for anyone concerned about the looming “resource crunch”.

In his latest book called “Peak everything. Waking up to the century of decline”, Heinberg develops his ideas further into a full civilisation critique focusing on the social and historical context of the new resource scarcity. On his Museletter blog, the author has published the introduction to this interesting new work. Here is a summary and some of my first comments.

One of the interesting thoughts Heinberg develops is that our 20th century (Western) way of life has really been a historical exception based on the extremely fast exploitation of natural capital (oil, gas, coal and mineral resources) which the Earth has built up in millions of years. Unfortunately the world has now entered a new era of maximum exploitation (the different peaks) which will rapidly be followed by rather quick declines (because of high demand from new industrialising economic powers and population growth).

Heinberg: “Our starting point … is the realization that we are today living at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history – an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible. Now that the most important of those sources are entering their inevitable sunset phase, we are at the beginning of a period of overall societal contraction.” and,

We have caught ourselves on the horns of the Universal Ecological Dilemma, consisting of the interlinked elements of population pressure, resource depletion, and habitat destruction – and on a scale unprecedented in history.”

Of course, Heinberg’s analysis is not new. Ecological economists such as Herman Daly have warned for decennia that classical economists (who inspire the political elites) have overlooked that our economy is a subset of a broader ecological system and therefore our “real” economies should develop in balance with that ecology instead of feeding on it.

Heinberg sees an end to growth and a “commencement of decline” in the following “parameters”: population; grain production; uranium production; climate stability; fresh water availability; arable land for agriculture; wild fish harvests; yearly extraction of some metals and minerals.

This “new scarcity” will have an effect on the following “parameters of social welfare“, says Heinberg:

  • “Per-capita consumption levels
  • Economic growth
  • Easy, cheap, quick mobility
  • Technological change and invention
  • Political stability”
  • But next to the bad news, there is also some good news. There are some “not-so-good things” which “will also peak this century“: “economic inequality; environmental destruction; greenhouse gas emissions”. And then there are the “good things that are not at or near their historic peaks” such as

  • “Community
  • Personal autonomy
  • Satisfaction from honest work well done
  • Intergenerational solidarity
  • Cooperation
  • Free time
  • Happiness
  • IngenuityArtistry
  • Beauty of the built environment”
  • Here is the point where I start to disagree with Heinberg’s analysis. In his efforts to escape “doom and gloom”, Heinberg falls into the trap of a Rousseauesque future which is based on a too rosy vision of the past. The world of scarcity before the oil age was not one I would like to return to. Maybe the gap between rich and poor was less in terms of absolute numbers but the power inequality between classes was certainly bigger than now. A return to a new age of scarcity could even lead to new serfdom, more community control and therefore less personal autonomy, more survival of the fittest instead of intergenerational solidarity and so on. 

    I agree again with Heinberg when he describes the failure of our instruments to measure progress (GDP) and the need for a Genuine Progress Indicator but his analysis of how people can be “convinced” to “reverse to lower levels of population, complexity and consumption” looks again incredibly politically naive to me. 

    People will need to feel that there will be an eventual reward for what will amount to many years of hard sacrifice. The reality is that we are approaching a time of economic contraction and that consumptive appetites that have been stoked for decades by ubiquitous advertising messages promising “more, faster, and bigger” will now have to be reined in. People will not willingly accept the new message of “less, slower, and smaller,” unless they have new goals toward which to aspire. They must feel that their efforts will lead to a better world, and tangible improvements in life for themselves and their families. The massive public education campaigns that will be required must be credible, and will therefore be vastly more successful if they give people a sense of investment and involvement in formulating those goals. There is a much-abused word that describes the necessary process – democracy.

    For sure, his central message is correct: “Our central survival task for the decades ahead, as individuals and as a species, must be to make a transition away from the use of fossil fuels – and to do this as peacefully, equitably, and intelligently as possible“. But is this last part of his message that I am very worried about. Do we really have the political structures in place to start our eco-renaissance or will we first have to suffer the “revenge of Gaia“?

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