MuseLetter #204 / April 2009
by Richard Heinberg
This month’s issue is a compilation of two pieces. The piece “Timing” is a commentary on the timing of global economic collapse and the fraught nature of accurately predicting when this will occur. This is followed by the new Post Carbon Manifesto which is being released this week. The manifesto sets out the new direction of Post Carbon Institute and its role in helping individuals, families, businesses, communities, and governments understand, prepare for, and manage the transition to a post-carbon world.
The general picture is clear enough. A combination of peak oil, climate change, and the bursting of the mother of all economic bubbles will result in a collapse of the global economy, perhaps of civilization itself. If we are still to avert the worst of a crisis that could eventuate in untold death, destruction, and tragedy, we need to restructure the world’s energy systems and money systems immediately.
This message (in one form or another) is issuing from scores of independent writers, environmental organizations, and economic analysts. Indeed, even before anyone had ever heard of a Credit Default Swap, going all the way back to the early 1970s if not earlier, similar warnings were periodically heard.
But forecasting global catastrophe can be a tricky business, because everyone wants to know just when it will happen. And there’s the rub. As a card-carrying member of the Cassandra Club, I’ve found this a perennial briarpatch. There have been so many variables at play that about all one could say with absolute confidence is that industrial civilization will run out of rope “sometime in the first two or three decades of the 21st century.” But most people consider that too vague, and institutional leaders have shown repeatedly that they are likely to respond only to definite warnings about fairly imminent catastrophe.
This puts an unfair onus on those in the business of waking the world up to the impending crunch. Jump the gun and you wind up sounding silly; make a conservative forecast for some bland-sounding disruption sometime in the distant future and you fail to motivate anyone to change course.
Some recent readings have highlighted these pitfalls in fascinatingly different ways, leading me to draw a fairly striking conclusion (which we’ll get to in a moment) regarding the current global economic crash.
One of these readings is Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb. There is still much to admire in this book, over 40 years since its publication. Here is mention of the greenhouse effect, along with good analysis of ecosystem degradation, pollution, and the fragility of industrial agriculture. However, the author famously forecast events that didn’t happen within the timeframe he thought they would (I say “famously,” because pro-growth PR trolls have made a cottage industry out of bashing Ehrlich ever since). Granted, these “forecasts” were presented only as likely scenarios, but many readers came away anticipating enormous famines in the 1970s—which, of course, never occurred (or were they merely postponed?).
Another wonderful book from decades past (in this case, 1978) by Warren Johnson, titled Muddling Toward Frugality: A Blueprint for Survival in the 1980s, is a reminder of lost opportunities.
Muddling is one of the classics of a genre that also includes William Catton’s Overshoot. Johnson begins the book with “An Ecological View of History” that manages, in 25 pages, to tell the story of our species about as concisely and clearly as anyone has managed to do (I have a particular fondness for encapsulated cultural-ecological histories—and offered my own version in the first chapter of The Party’s Over—so I know a good one when I see it). He goes on to explain the inevitability of the coming ecological-economic-demographic crisis, again with lucidity. The remainder of the book is a discussion of how we can “muddle through” the tough times ahead toward a way of life that is more localized and less consumptive of energy and resources.
The book is suffused with the aura of its time. In 1978 the world was reeling from soaring energy prices and was in economic turmoil. Johnson assumed that those high prices would continue, and that gradually society would adjust. It would all be rather painful, but we would eventually figure out, through trial and error, how to accommodate ourselves to scarcity, giving up on economic growth and learning to live within limits. Reading this in 2009, it’s pleasing to learn about the relatively shock-free future we can look backward to.
Johnson does note that a few potholes could get in the way of successful muddling. For example, if climate change accelerates, if the economy collapses, if there is geopolitical conflict over remaining resources, or if (as a result of any of these problems) political institutions become destabilized, then muddling just won’t cut it.
Tellingly, most of these scary developments have come to pass.
One possibility Johnson didn’t discuss: What if energy prices fall? Well, in that case there would be no pressure to adapt, and society would go back to its old bad habits of growing and consuming. Then the crunch, when it finally did arrive, would be much worse, making muddling impossible.
That, of course, is exactly what has occurred in the interim. Oil prices plummeted in the mid-1980s, stayed low through the ’90s, the SUV was born, and here we are.
Another recent read: Australian politician and foreign correspondent Colin Mason’s The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Global Catastrophe, published in 2003. The book’s thesis was recently supplemented by Jonathan Porritt’s essay, “Avoiding the Ultimate Recession”: both writings hinge on essentially the same forecast for a giant economic-environmental crunch in about twenty years as a result of converging circumstances that include oil depletion, overpopulation, climate change, food and water shortages, and (in Mason’s analysis) a breakdown of international law.
Mason paints a dire picture of life two decades hence, and then in the rest of his book helpfully details 100 priorities for immediate action to avert the new Dark Age. It’s all great stuff. But the question that leapt to my mind the moment I saw the book’s title was: Do we really have until 2030?
Porritt, to be fair, says all of this could happen as soon as 2020. But still, the essential notion both authors share is that we have one bounce left before the splat, a period of business-as-usual that we must use wisely as a time for rapid proactive re-engineering of society to avert catastrophic climate change, environmental collapse, and resource depletion.
Mason and Porritt understandably don’t want to make Ehrlich’s or Johnson’s mistakes. Porritt tellingly titles his essay “Avoiding the Ultimate Recession.” He’s saying (paraphrasing now): “Hey folks, what we’re seeing currently may be bad, but we’ll get over it. What happens in a decade or two when climate change kicks in will constitute a Depression from which there is no recovery. So let’s get ourselves in gear to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
But the enormity of the current economic meltdown raises the question: Is this really just a hiccup, or is it the beginning of the end (not of the world, perhaps, but certainly of life as we have known it for the past decades)?
It’s still a judgment call, at this point.
Maybe Geithner and Bernanke can pull off a miracle and stabilize the economy. In that case, with energy demand having fallen so far below its level of just a year ago, it might take as long as five years from no—who knows, maybe even seven—for depletion and decline to cause oil prices to spike again, giving the economy the coup de grace. At that point, there can indeed be no recovery, only adaptation. That’s the best-case scenario I can imagine (in terms of preserving the status quo).
But I have a hard time picturing that. A much more likely scenario, in my view: We will see a few months of fairly gradual economic deterioration (slowed by the mighty efforts of the Bailout Brigade), followed by a truly ugly global economic meltdown. The result will be a general level of economic activity much lower than the world is accustomed to. Efforts to right the ship will include protectionist legislation (that will provoke international confrontations), the convening of world leaders to create a new global currency and financial system (which probably won’t succeed, at least not the first time around), and various populist uprisings that will lead to political instability around the globe. Energy demand will remain low, but energy production will fall dramatically due to lack of investment. Carbon emissions will therefore fall too, so the world’s attention will be diverted from tackling the greenhouse gas issue, even though climate impacts from previous carbon emissions will continue to worsen.
But here’s the crux of the matter: unlike the situation the world faced in the 1970s, there is no prospect for another cheap-energy bounce this time. It’s too late to muddle. We have run out the clock on proactive adaptation. From now on, collective survival will hinge on the strategies we adopt for emergency response. Some strategies will make matters worse, while others will lay the groundwork for better times to come. This is what it has come to. One doesn’t wish to sound shrill, but there it is.
The closer we have gotten to the crunch, the smaller the margin of error in predicting it. There really isn’t that much difference between Porritt’s most pessimistic date for catastrophe (2020) and my most wide-eyed optimistic one (2016). But perhaps the closer we get to the event horizon, the less discussions over timing really matter, because the whole conversation makes sense only as a way of motivating coordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the unwinding has begun, no more preparation is possible. Our strategy must change from crisis prevention to crisis management.
That’s where we are right now, in my view.
So what we desperately need to be talking about are ways to manage crisis that will minimize human suffering while preserving the environment and laying the groundwork for a sustainable way of life for future generations.
It’s a new conversation, so it will take a while to re-orient ourselves to it. But let’s not take too long. One thing we can say about the timing that I think just about everyone would agree with: it’s speeding up.
Post Carbon Institute Manifesto:
The Time For Change Has Come
The United States is in the beginning stages of an historic economic collapse. As of early 2009, five million Americans have already been pushed into the unemployment line, while an average of more than 600,000 join them each month. The Federal government has thrown more than a trillion dollars at the financial crisis, but the symptoms only worsen.
Meanwhile, an even more profound crisis has been silently gathering for decades and is now reaching a point of no return. This crisis manifests as the twin challenges of global fossil fuel depletion and environmental collapse.
The world almost certainly experienced peak oil production last summer, and peaks in natural gas and coal production are not far off1. But renewable energy sources are nowhere near ready to substitute in the quantities and applications we currently require. The best known, and potentially most severe, of environmental challenges is global climate change. Yet we are also now facing a series of natural resource limits—fresh water supplies, fish stocks, topsoil, and biodiversity—that threaten our very existence.
Our 21st century dependence on 20th century hydrocarbon energy (fossil fuels) is the root of all the economic and environmental threats we face. Individually, each of these challenges would test us. Their combined force will reshape our planet and society in unimaginable ways.
All of the debts for society’s century-long industrial fiesta are coming due at the same time. We have no choice but to transition to a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels, a world made up of communities and economies that function within ecological bounds. Thus the most important question of our time: How do we manage the transition to a post-carbon world?
Post Carbon Institute is dedicated to helping individuals, families, businesses, communities, and governments understand and manage the transition to a post-carbon world. Our aim is to bring together the best thinking and models in such a way that the challenges we face can be easily understood, and the best solutions can be identified and replicated as quickly, sustainably, and equitably as possible.
These are unprecedented times that will test our courage, resourcefulness, and commitment. Many communities have already begun their post-carbon journey. We hope you join us.
In 1972, the Limits to Growth report2 explored the consequences of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion for Earth’s ecosystems. The book came under immediate fire and has remained controversial ever since, but its underlying premise is irrefutable: At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources. We believe that time has now come.
An explosion in population and consumption—fed by cheap, abundant energy—has brought previously unimaginable advances in health, wealth, transport, and communications. But this growth has come at an equally unimaginable cost. The world is at, nearing, or past a number of critical limits:
- Global oil, natural gas, and coal production
- Climate stability
- Fresh water and fish stocks
- Food production
- Biodiversity and habitats
Some of these limits are now well understood; some remain controversial or unknown to the general populace. The full scope of the damage to the biosphere and the depletion of natural resources would take volumes to describe in detail, 3 but the general picture is inescapable: we face looming scarcity.
It is no coincidence that so many resource peaks are occurring together. All are causally related by way of the historic reality that, for the past 200 years, cheap and abundant energy from fossil fuels has driven technological invention, increases in total and per-capita resource extraction and consumption (including food production), and population growth. We are enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Our starting point for future planning, then, must be the realization that we are living today 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 economic contraction.
Challenge & Opportunity
2008 was a year for the history books. Global oil production likely peaked over the summer4 and began its inevitable and terminal decline, leading to great uncertainty and shocks to everything from transportation and manufacturing to food production and healthcare. Climate scientists and activists, impelled by increasing evidence that global warming is happening faster and more severely than even the most dire of prior scenarios had predicted, united behind the call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 350 parts per million (we are now at 387ppm and rising).
Also in 2008, a new U.S. President was elected with the promise of “change. ” And of course, the global economy began its plunge towards a new Depression, triggered by the US mortgage crisis, the historic spike in oil prices, and the collapse of the automobile and financial industries.
Together, these events signal that the time for real change is upon us.
The Post-Carbon Transition
Seeing an opportunity to simultaneously address the economic and climate crises, the federal government recently authorized $500 million for “green collar” job training5, with the goal of creating new jobs to retrofit buildings and deploy solar and wind energy technologies. While this is a laudable start, the circumstances demand much more.
The post-carbon transition must not be limited to building wind turbines and solar panels, or weatherizing homes. Alternative energy sources and greater efficiencies are important, but will not suffice for two key reasons:
- There are no alternative energy sources (renewable or otherwise) capable of supplying energy as cheaply and in such abundance as fossil fuels currently yield, in the brief time that we need them to come online
- We have designed and built the infrastructure of our transport, electricity, and food systems—as well as our building stock—to suit the unique characteristics of oil, natural gas, and coal. Changing to different energy sources will require the redesign of many aspects of these systems.
The post-carbon transition must entail the thorough redesign of our societal infrastructure, which today is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Just as the fossil fuel economy of today systemically and comprehensively differs from the agrarian economy of 1800, the post-fossil fuel economy of 2050 will profoundly differ from all that we are familiar with now. This difference will be reflected in urban design, land use patterns, food systems, manufacturing output, distribution networks, the job market, transportation systems, health care, tourism, and more. It will also require a fundamental rethinking of our economic and cultural values.
The New Economy
Quite simply, our growth-based economy has failed us and is failing the planet. It is time to embrace a new economic framework, one that sees the economy as a subset of our global ecosystem, not the other way around. Herman Daly and Josh Farley, in Ecological Economics, contrast the two systems clearly:
“We define growth as an increase in throughput, which is the flow of natural resources from the environment, through the economy, and back to the environment as waste. It is a quantitative increase in the physical dimensions of the economy and/or of the waste stream produced by the economy. This kind of growth, of course, cannot continue indefinitely, as the Earth and its resources are not infinite…
“Where conventional economics espouses growth forever, ecological economics envisions a steady-state economy at optimal scale. Each is logical within its own pre-analytic vision, and each is absurd from the viewpoint of the other. The difference could not be more basic, more elementary, or more irreconcilable.” 6
Recent global events have made it plainly clear which of the two economic frameworks is truly absurd.
Leading the Transition
The winds of social change are upon us. Consumerism as we’ve known it is at death’s door—not because everyone has joined the Sierra Club, but because suddenly nobody can afford to buy much of anything. Our new historical moment requires different thinking and strategies, but it also opens new opportunities to solve some very practical problems. Ideas from the environmentalist community that for decades have been derided by economists and politicians—reducing consumption, re-localizing economic activity, building self-sufficiency—are suddenly being taken seriously, and people want to know more about them.
Quietly, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and elected officials has begun the transition to a post-carbon world. These early actors have worked to reduce consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, rebuild skills, and preserve local ecosystems. For some citizens, this effort has merely entailed planting a garden, riding a bike to work, or no longer buying from “big-box” stores. Their motivations are diverse, including halting climate change, environmental preservation, food security, and local economic development. The essence of these efforts, however, is the same: they all recognize that the world is changing, and the old way of doing things, based on the idea that consumption can and should continue to grow indefinitely, no longer works.
Alone, these efforts are not nearly enough. But taken together, they can point the way towards a new economy. This new economy would not be a “free market” but a “real market,” much like the one famed economist Adam Smith originally envisioned; it would be, as author David Korten has said, an economy driven by Main Street and not Wall Street.7
Thus far, most of these efforts have been made voluntarily by exceptional individuals who were quick to understand the crisis we face. But as the collapse unfolds, more and more people will be searching for ways to meet even basic needs. Families reliant on supermarkets with globe-spanning supply chains will need to turn more to local farmers and their own gardens. Many corporations—unable to provide a continuous return on investment or to rely on cheap energy and natural resources to turn a profit—will fail, while local businesses and cooperatives of all kinds will flourish. Local governments facing declining tax revenues will be desperate to find cheap, low-energy ways to support basic public services like water treatment, public transportation, and emergency services.
What we need now are clarity, leadership, coordination, and collaboration. With shared purpose and a clear understanding of both the challenges and the solutions, we can manage the transition to a sustainable, equitable, post-carbon world.
Elements of a transition strategy have been proposed for decades, with few notable results. Usually these have been presented as independent—sometimes even contradictory—solutions to the problems created by fossil fuel dependency and consumerism. Now that business-as-usual is ceasing to be an option for mainstream society, these strategies need to be re-thought and re-articulated coherently, and to become the mainstream. But this will require coordinated effort on the part of those who understand both the problems and the solutions.
Post Carbon Institute is dedicated to answering the central question of our times: How do we manage the transition to a post-growth, post-fossil fuel, climate-changed world?
It will be Post Carbon Institute’s role to publicly discuss these issues in accessible ways, and as aspects of a systemic, interdependent web of crises. We will gather and analyze response strategies (whether proven or under experimentation), and disseminate them to the individuals, communities, businesses, and governments who need them. We will develop the framing and messaging of these issues so as to significantly raise the visibility and impact of emerging solutions.
We will constantly monitor both challenges and exciting new developments in a range of fields: energy, climate, food systems, land use, green building construction and retrofits, biodiversity and ecological restoration, water, transportation, and new economic systems. We will highlight green-leader cities and businesses, Transition Town 8 initiatives and ecovillage developments, local energy cooperatives, and innovative NGOs.
Through our close relationships with forward-thinking communities and organizations, Post Carbon Institute is uniquely positioned to both draw from their best practices and provide them with the resources they need to quickly scale up and replicate their work. To our knowledge, there is no other organization taking this important leadership role.
The centerpiece of our effort is the development of a select community of Post Carbon Fellows—leading or emerging experts in the most important issues concerning the transition. Post Carbon Fellows will regularly write and speak about both their specific area of expertise and the transition as a whole. Together, Fellows will publish an annual Roadmap For the Transition, covering each of the principal issue areas—and the latest efforts to address the crisis—in a unified, holistic way.
How is this different from what is already happening? Most if not all of the relevant information we are concerned with already exists, much of it on the Internet. There are magazines devoted to various aspects of the “alternatives” movement, and there are organizations doing good work in these areas. But what’s lacking is a unified vision of both the challenges and solutions that sees all of these fields as interrelated.
This unified vision can be communicated through the work of a think tank composed of thought leaders from key fields who can identify, contextualize, and bring to light the most exciting developments within their areas of expertise, while highlighting the relationships between these fields. No other organization is so well positioned to reach, learn from, and support transition efforts in such a broad array of fields. No other organization has the reputation and background to be able to connect grassroots organizers, policymakers, and the media on these issues.
As bad news continues to pour in from climate scientists, petroleum geologists, and economists, there is a growing realization that the decisions we make in the next few years will determine what the world will be like for generations—perhaps millennia—to come. This historic moment of transition is a precious and brief opportunity; we all have some sense of what is at stake and what could happen if society continues down its current path.
But if we are successful in our efforts, the movement to nurture a sustainable post-carbon world will go both viral and local. It will become the mainstream, and the kinds of efforts we are championing will be so commonplace that further work on our part will be unnecessary. In the meantime, we have one chance—and it may be humanity’s very last chance—to turn away from the precipice. We have an enormous challenge, and extraordinary opportunity. Please join us.
- Barlow, M., Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. (New York: New Press, 2008).
- Brown, L., Plan B3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. (New York: Norton, 2008).
- Daly, H. and Farley, J., Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004).
- Diamond, J., Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail Or Succeed. (New York: Penguin, 2005).
- Heinberg, R., Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, forthcoming 2009).
- Heinberg, R., Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2007).
- Heinberg, R., The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2003).
- Homer-Dixon, T., The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006).
- Hopkins, R., The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2008).
- Kolbert, E., Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change. (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006).
- Lerch, D., Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. (Sebastopol: Post Carbon Press, 2007).
- McKibben, B., Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. (New York: Times Books, 2007).
- Meadows, D., Randers, J. and Meadows, D., The Limits to Growth: The 30- Year Update. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2004).
- Murphy, P., Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2008).
- Pollan, M., In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. (New York, Penguin, 2008).
- Roberts, P., The End of Food. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
- Shuman, M., The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).
- Speth, J., The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
- Wilson, E.O., The Future of Life. (New York: Vintage, 2003).
- A Crude Awakening
Directed by Ray McCormack, Basil Gelpke, Reto Caduff. Docurama, 2007.
- An Inconvenient Truth
Directed by Davis Guggenheim. Paramount Pictures, 2006.
- Blind Spot
Directed by Adolfo Doring. Dislexic Films, 2008.
- End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream
Directed by Gregory Greene. Microcinema DVD, 2007.
- Flow: For Love of Water
Directed by Irena Salina. Oscilloscope, 2008.
- The 11th Hour
Directed by Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen. Warner Brothers, 2007.
- The Corporation
Directed by Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar. Zeitgeist Films, 2005.
- The Future of Food
Directed by Deborah Koons Garcia. Arts Alliance America, 2007.
- Who Killed the Electric Car?
Directed by Chris Paine. Sony Pictures, 2006.
4. See Heinberg, Richard R. (8 Oct 2008) “Say Goodbye to Peak Oil.” Post Carbon Institute. (http://postcarbon.org/say_goodbye_peak_oil).
5. See Biden, J. (27 Feb 2009) “Green Jobs Are a Way to Aid the Middle-Class.” Philadelphia Inquirer. (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/40409617.html).
8. See http://www.transitiontowns.org.