MuseLetter #110 / March 2001
by Richard Heinberg
Greetings to you, people of the year 2001! You are living in the year of my birth; I am one hundred years old now, writing to you from the year 2101. I am using the last remnants of the advanced physics that scientists developed during your era, in order to send this electronic message back in time to one of your computer networks. I hope that you receive it, and that it will give you reason to pause and reflect on your world and what actions to take with regard to it.
Of myself I shall say only what it is necessary to say: I am a survivor. I have been extremely fortunate on many occasions and in many ways, and I regard it as something of a miracle that I am here to compose this message. I have spent much of my life attempting to pursue the career of historian, but circumstances have compelled me also to learn and practice the skills of farmer, forager, guerrilla fighter, engineer – and now physicist. My life has been long and eventful . . . but that is not what I have gone to so much trouble to convey to you. It is what I have witnessed during this past century that I feel compelled to tell you by these extraordinary means.
You are living at the end of an era. Perhaps you cannot understand that. I hope that, by the time you have finished reading this letter, you will.
I want to tell you what is important for you to know, but you may find some of this information hard to absorb. Please have patience with me. I am an old man and I don’t have much time for niceties. If what I say seems unbelievable, think of it as science fiction. But please pay attention. The communication device I am using is quite unstable and there’s no telling how much of my story will actually get through to you. Please pass it along to others. It will probably be the only such message you will ever receive.
Since I don’t know how much information I will actually be able to convey, I’ll start with the most important items, ones that will be of greatest help in your understanding of where your world is headed. Energy has been the central organizing – or should I say, disorganizing? – principle of this century. Actually, in historical retrospect, I would have to say that energy was the central organizing principle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well. People discovered new energy sources – coal, then petroleum – in the nineteenth century, and then invented all sorts of new technologies to make use of this freshly released energy. Transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, lighting, heating – all were revolutionized, and the results reached deep into the lives of everyone in the industrialized world. Everybody became utterly dependent on the new gadgets; on imported, chemically fertilized food; on chemically synthesized and fossil-fuel-delivered therapeutic drugs; on the very idea of perpetual growth (after all, it would always be possible to produce more energy to fuel more transportation and manufacturing – wouldn’t it?). Well, if the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the upside of the growth curve, this past century has been the downside – the cliff. It should have been perfectly obvious to everyone that the energy sources on which they were coming to rely were exhaustible. Somehow the thought never sank in very deep. I suppose that’s because people generally tend to get used to a certain way of life, and from then on they don’t think about it very much. That’s true today, too. The young people now have never known anything different; they take for granted our way of life – scavenging among the remains of industrial civilization for whatever can be put to immediate use – as though this is how people have always lived, as if this is how we were meant to live. That’s why I’ve always been attracted to history, so that I could get some perspective on human societies as they change through time. But I’m digressing. Where was I?
Yes – the energy crisis. Well, it all started around the time I was born. Folks then thought it would be brief, that it was just a political or technical problem, that soon everything would get back to normal. They didn’t stop to think that “normal,” in the longer-term historical sense, meant living on the energy budget of incoming sunlight and of the vegetative growth of the biosphere. Perversely, they thought “normal” meant using fossil energy like there was no tomorrow. And, I guess, there almost wasn’t. That was a classic self-confirming expectation – nearly.
At first, most people thought the shortages could be solved with “technology.” However, in retrospect that’s quite ludicrous. After all, their modern gadgetry had been invented to use a temporary abundance of energy. It didn’t produce energy. Yes, there were the nuclear reactors (heavens, those things turned out to be nightmares!), but they cost so much energy to build and decommission that the power they produced during their lifetimes barely paid for them in energy terms. The same with photovoltaic panels: it seems that nobody ever sat down and calculated how much energy it actually took to manufacture them, starting with the silicon wafers produced as byproducts of the computer industry, and including the construction of the manufacturing plant itself. It turned out that the making of the panels ate up nearly as much power as the panels themselves generated duing their lifetime. Nevertheless, quite a few of them were built – I wish that more had been! – and many are still operating (that’s what’s powering the device that allows me to transmit this signal to you from the future). Solar power was a good idea; its main drawback was simply that it was incapable of satisfying people’s energy-guzzling habits. With the exhaustion of fossil fuels, no technology could have maintained the way of life that people had gotten used to. But it took quite a while for many to realize that. Their pathetic faith in technology turned out to be almost religious in character, as though their gadgets were votive objects connecting them with an invisible but omnipotent god capable of overturning the laws of thermodynamics.
Naturally, some of the first effects of the energy shortages showed up as economic recessions, followed by an endless depression. The economists had been operating on the basis of their own religion – an absolute, unshakable faith in the Market-as-God; in supply-and-demand. They figured that if oil started to run out, the price would rise, offering incentives for research into alternatives. But the economists never bothered to think this through. If they had, they would have realized that the revamping of society’s entire energy infrastructure would take decades, while the price signal from resource shortages might come only weeks or months before some hypothetical replacement would be needed. Moreover, they should have realized that there was no substitute for basic energy resources.
The economists could think only in terms of money; basic necessities like water and energy only showed up in their calculations in terms of dollar cost, which made them functionally interchangeable with everything else that was priceable – oranges, airliners, diamonds, baseball cards, whatever. But, in the last analysis, basic resources weren’t interchangeable with other economic goods at all: you couldn’t drink baseball cards, no matter how big or valuable your collection, once the water ran out. Nor could you eat dollars, if nobody had food to sell. And so, after a certain point, people started to lose faith in their money. And as they did so, they realized that faith had been the only thing that made money worth anything in the first place. Currencies just collapsed – first in one country, then in another. There was inflation, deflation, barter, and thievery on every imaginable scale as matters sorted themselves out.
In the era when I was born, commentators used to liken the global economy to a casino. A few folks were making trillions of dollars, euros, and yen trading in currencies, companies, and commodity futures. None of these people were actually doing anything useful; they were just laying down their bets and, in many cases, raking in colossal winnings. If you followed the economic chain, you’d see that all of that money was coming out of ordinary people’s pockets . . . but that’s another story. Anyway: all of that economic activity depended on energy, on global transportation and communication, and on faith in the currencies. Early in the twenty-first century, the global casino went bankrupt. Gradually, a new metaphor became operational. We went from global casino to village flea market.
With less energy available each year, and with unstable currencies plaguing transactions, manufacturing and transportation shrank in scale. It didn’t matter how little Nike paid its workers in Indonesia: once shipping became prohibitively expensive, profits from the globalization of its operations vanished. But Nike couldn’t just start up factories back in the States again; all of those factories had been closed two decades earlier. The same with all the other clothing manufacturers, electronics manufacturers, and so on. All of that local manufacturing infrastructure had been destroyed to make way for globalization, for cheaper goods, for bigger corporate profits. And now, to recreate that infrastructure would require a huge financial and energy investment – just when money and energy were in ever shorter supply.
Stores were empty. People were out of work. How were they to survive? The only way they could do so was by endlessly recycling all the used stuff that had been manufactured before the energy crisis. At first, after the initial economic shock waves, people were selling their stuff on internet auctions – when there was electricity. Then, when it became clear that lack of reliable transportation made delivery of the goods problematic, people started selling stuff on street corners so they could pay their rents and mortgages and buy food. But, after the currency collapse, that didn’t make sense either, so people began just trading stuff, refurbishing it, using it however they could in order to get by. The cruel irony was that most of their stuff consisted of cars and electronic gadgets that nobody could afford to operate anymore. Worthless! Anybody who had human-powered hand tools and knew how to use them was wealthy indeed. And still is.
Industrial civilization sure produced a hell of a lot of junk during its brief existence. Over the past fifty or sixty years, folks have dug up just about every landfill there ever was, looking for anything at all that could be useful. What a god-awful mess! With all due respect, I have always had a hard time understanding why – and even how – you people could take billions of tons of invaluable, ancient, basic resources and turn them into mountains of stinking garbage, with apparently almost no measurable period of practical use in between! Couldn’t you at least have made durable, well-designed stuff? I must say that the quality of the tools, furniture, houses, and so on that we have inherited from you – and are forced to use, given that few of us are capable of replacing them – is pretty dismal.
Well, I apologize for those last remarks. I don’t mean to be nasty or rude. Actually some of the hand tools left behind are quite good. But you have to understand: the industrial way of life to which you have become accustomed will have horrific consequences for your children and grandchildren. I can vaguely remember seeing – when I was very young, maybe five or six – some old television shows from the 1950s: Ozzie and Harriet . . . Father Knows Best . . . Lassie. They portrayed an innocent world, one in which children grew up in small communities surrounded by friends and family. All problems were easily dealt with by adults who were mostly kind and wise. It all seemed so stable and benign.
When I was born, that world, if it had ever really existed, was long gone. By the time I was old enough to know much about what was happening on the bigger scene, society was beginning to come apart at the seams. It started with electricity blackouts – just a few hours at a time at first. Then the natural gas shortages clicked in. Not only were we cold most of the winter, but the blackouts got dramatically worse because so much electricity was being produced using natural gas. And then the oil and gasoline shortages hit. At this point – I guess I was a young teenager then – the economy was in tatters and there was political chaos.
By the time I was an older teenager, a certain identifiable attitude was developing among the young people. It was a feeling of utter contempt for anyone over a certain age – maybe thirty or forty. The adults had consumed so many resources, and now there were none left for their own children. Of course, when those adults were younger they had just been doing what everybody else was doing. They figured it was normal to cut down ancient forests for wood pulp for their phone books, pump every last gallon of oil to power their SUVs, or flick on the air conditioner if they were a little warm. For the kids of my generation, all of that was just a dim memory. What we knew was very different. We were living in darkness, with shortages of food and water, with riots in the streets, with people begging on street corners, with unpredictable weather, with pollution and garbage that could no longer be carted away and hidden from sight. For us, the adults were the enemy.
In some places, the age wars remained just a matter of simmering resentment. In others, there were random attacks on older people. In still others, there were systematic purges. I’m ashamed to say that, while I didn’t actually physically attack any older people, I did participate in the shaming and name-calling. Those poor old folks – some of them still quite young, by my present perspective! – were just as confused and betrayed as we kids were. I can imagine myself in their shoes. Try to do the same: try to remember the last time you went to a store to buy something and the store didn’t have it. (This little thought exercise is a real stretch for me, since I haven’t been in a “store” that actually had much of anything for several decades, but I’m trying to put this in terms that you will understand.) Did you feel frustrated? Did you get angry, thinking, “I drove all the way here for this thing, and now I’m going to have to drive all the way across town to another store to get it”? Well, multiply that frustration and anger by a thousand, ten thousand. This is what people were going through every day, with regard to just about every consumer item, service, or bureaucratic necessity they had grown accustomed to. Moreover, those adults had lost most of what they had in the economic crash. And now gangs of kids were stealing whatever was left and heaping scorn on them as they did so. That must have been devastating for them. Unbearable.
Now that I’m so ancient myself, I have a little more tolerance for people. We’re all just trying to get by, doing the best we can.
I suppose you’re curious to know more about what has happened during this past century – the politics, wars, revolutions. Well, I’ll tell you what I know, but there’s a lot that I don’t. For the last sixty years or so we haven’t had anything like the global communications networks that used to exist. There are large parts of the world about which I know almost nothing. But I’ll share what I can.
As you can imagine, when the energy resource shortages hit the United States and the economy started to go into a tailspin (it’s interesting that I still use that word: only the oldest among us, such as myself, have ever seen an airplane tailspin, nose-dive, or even fly), people became angry and started looking around for someone to blame. Of course, the government didn’t want to be the culprit, so those bastards in power (sorry, I still don’t have much sympathy for them) did what political leaders have always done – they created a foreign enemy. They sent warships, bombers, missiles, and tanks off across the oceans for heaven knows what grisly purpose. People were told that this was being done to protect their “American Way of Life.” Well, there was nothing on Earth that could have accomplished that. It was the American Way of Life that was the problem!
The generals managed to kill a few million people. Actually, it could have been tens or hundreds of millions for all I know; the news media were never very clear on that, since they were censored by the military. There were antiwar protests in the streets, and persecutions of the antiwar protesters – some of whom were rounded up and put in concentration camps. The government became utterly fascistic in its methods toward the end. There were local uprisings and brutal crackdowns. But it was all for nothing. The wars only depleted what few resources were still available, and after five horrible years the central government just collapsed. Ran out of gas.
Speaking of political events, it’s worth noting that, in the early years of the shortages, the existing political philosophies had very little to offer that was helpful. The right-wingers were completely devoted to shielding the wealthy from blame and shifting all of the pain onto poor people and overseas scapegoats – the Arabs, North Koreans, and so on. Meanwhile, the Left was so habituated to fighting corporate meanies that it couldn’t grasp the fact that the problems now facing society couldn’t be solved by economic redistribution. Personally, as a historian, I tend to be much more sympathetic to the Left because I think that the accumulation of wealth that was occurring was just obscene. I suspect that a hell of a lot of suffering could have been averted if all of that wealth had been spread around early on, when the money was worth something. But to hear some of the leftist leaders talk, you’d think that once all the corporations had been reined in, once the billionaire plutocrats had been relieved of their riches, everything would be fine. Well, everything wasn’t going to be fine, no way.
So here were these two political factions fighting to the death, blaming each other, while everybody around them was starving or going crazy. What the people really needed was just some basic common-sense information and advice, somebody to tell them the truth – that their way of life was coming to an end – and to offer them some sensible collective survival strategies.
Much of what has happened during the past century was what you have every reason to expect on the basis of your scientists’ forecasts: we have seen dramatic climate shifts, species extinctions, and horrible epidemics, just as the ecologists at the turn of the last century warned there would be. I don’t think that’s a matter of much satisfaction to those ecologists descendants. Getting to say “I told you so” is paltry comfort in this situation. Tigers and whales are gone, and probably tens of thousands of other species; but our lack of reliable global communications makes it difficult for anyone to know just which species and where. For me, songbirds are a fond but distant memory. I suppose my counterparts in China or Africa have long lists. Climate change has been a real problem for growing food, and for just getting by. You never know from one year to the next what swarms of unfamiliar insects will show up. For a year or two or three, all we get is rain. Then there’s drought for the next five or six. It’s much worse than a nuisance; it’s life-threatening. That’s just one of the factors that has led to the dramatic reduction in human population during this past century.
Many people call it “The Die-off.” Others call it “The Pruning,” “The Purification,” or “The Cleansing.” Some terms are more palatable than others, but there really are no nice ways to describe the actual events – the wars, epidemics, and famines.
Food and water have been big factors in all of this. Fresh, clean water has been scarce for decades now. One way to make young people mad at me is to tell them stories about how folks in the old days used to pour millions upon millions of gallons of water on their lawns. When I describe to them how flush toilets worked, they just can’t bear it. Some of them ‘m making this stuff up! These days water is serious business. If you waste it, somebody’s likely to die.
Starting many decades ago, people began – by necessity – to learn how to grow their own food. Not everyone was successful, and there was a lot of hunger. One of the frustrating things was the lack of good seeds. Very few people knew anything about saving seeds from one season to the next, so existing seed stocks were depleted very quickly. There was also a big problem with all the modern hybrid varieties: few of the garden vegetables that were planted would produce good seeds for the next year. The genetically engineering plants were even worse, causing all sorts of ecological problems that we’re still dealing with, particularly the killing off of bees and other beneficial insects. The seeds of good open-pollinated food plants are like gold to us.
I did some traveling by foot and on horseback when I was younger, in my fifties and sixties, and we do get some reports from the outside world. From what I’ve seen and heard, it seems that people in different places have coped in different ways and with widely varying degrees of success. Ironically, perhaps, the indigenous people who were most persecuted by civilization are probably doing the best. They still retained a lot of knowledge of how to live simply on the land. In some places, people are dwelling together in makeshift rural communes; other folks are trying to survive in what’s left of the great urban centers, ripping up concrete and growing what they can as they recycle and trade all the old junk that was left behind when people fled the cities in the ‘twenties. As a historian, one of my biggest frustrations is the rapid disappearance of knowledge. You people had a mania for putting most of your important information on electronic storage media and acid-laden paper – which are disintegrating very quickly. For the most part, all we have are fading photographs, random books, and crumbling magazines.
A few of our young people look at the old magazine ads and wonder what it must have been like to live in a world with jet airplanes, electricity, and sports cars. It must have been utopia, paradise! Others among us are not so sanguine about the past. I suppose that’s part of my job as a historian: to remind everyone that the advertising images were only one side of a story; it was the other side of that story – the rampant exploitation of nature and people, the blindness to consequences – that led to the horrors of the past century.
You’re probably wondering if I have any good news, anything encouraging to say about the future of your world. Well, as with most things, it depends on your perspective. Many of the survivors learned valuable lessons. They learned what’s important in life and what isn’t. They learned to treasure good soil, viable seeds, clean water, unpolluted air, and friends you can count on. They learned how to take charge of their own lives, rather than expecting to be taken care of by some government or corporation. There are no “jobs” now, so people’s time is all their own. They think for themselves more. Partly as a result of that, the old religions have largely fallen by the wayside, and folks have rediscovered spirituality in nature and in their local communities. The kids today are eager to learn and to create their own culture. The traumas of industrial civilization’s collapse are in the past; that’s history now. It’s a new day.
Can you change the future? I don’t know. There are all sorts of logical contradictions inherent in that question. I can barely understand the principles of physics that are allowing me to transmit this signal to you. Possibly, as a result of reading this letter, you might do something that would change my world. Maybe you could save a forest or a species, or preserve some heirloom seeds, or help prepare yourselves and the rest of the population for the coming energy shortages. My life might be altered as a result. Then, I suppose this letter would change, as would your experience of reading it. And as a result of that, you’d take different actions. We would have set up some kind of cosmic feedback loop between past and future. It’s pretty interesting to think about.
Speaking of physics, maybe I should mention that I’ve come to accept a view of history based on what I’ve read about chaos theory. According to the theory, in chaotic systems small changes in initial conditions can lead to big changes in outcomes. Well, human society and history are chaotic systems. Even though most of what people do is determined by material circumstances, they still have some wiggle room, and what they do with that can make a significant difference down the line. In retrospect, it appears that human survival in the twenty-first century hinged on many small and seemingly insignificant efforts by marginalized individuals and groups in the twentieth century. The anti-nuclear movement, the conservation movement, the anti-biotech movement, the organic food and gardening movements, indigenous peoples’ resistance movements, the tiny organizations devoted to seed saving – all had a profound and positive impact on later events.
I suppose that, logically speaking, if you were to alter the web of causation leading up to my present existence, it is possible that events might transpire that would preclude my being here. In that case, this letter would constitute history’s most bizarre suicide note! But that is a risk I am willing to take. Do what you can. Change history! And while you’re at it, be kind to one another. Don’t take anything or anyone for granted.