Day 6 – Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines

heinberg.jpgRichard 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 was met with ripples of laugher when he announced, “This next hour is a compacted version of my 30-hour university lecture material on human ecology, so fasten your seat belts.”

There are nearly 7 billion of us on planet earth currently, Richard noted. Now, how were we able to accomplish so much in our history?

With our ability to capture energy, that is, second-hand sunlight, we were able to run a net energy profit in the range of 10 – 1. We reproduced, we sang, we danced, and we told stories.

The two factors for this are:

1. Language – by far the most important factor. All organisms communicate, but human language is uniquely abstract and varied and complex, yet we take it for granted. Language gives us social power, allowing us to, among many other things, plan and strategise, co-ordinate our behaviour, diffuse information throughout wide regions.

2. Ability to make tools – adoption of fire, horticulture, agriculture, slavery (capturing the energy of our fellow humans). This culminates in the Industrial Era, the Fossil Fuel Era when we have an energy bank we can draw on. We’ve mechanised every possible activity. Powered machines became a source of magic. Concentrated energy allowed us to make tools with a mind of their own, smaller, cheaper, faster, more intrusive and engaging. Our energy consumption has exploded.

Economic inequality came in. As hunter/gatherers we were equal — we were all depending on one another for our survival. As we began to store energy, wealth inequality arose.

The human population also exploded to the 6.5 billion we are now. This is an extraordinary biological success, but a perilous success. It is now clear that there are limits to growth. In 1972, this idea was so concerning that a PR takedown occurred that was completely fictitious, pure propaganda. Sometime in the twenty-first century those patterns to growth will surely come to an end.

Oil and gas are being depleted. Global coal supplies have been substantially over-estimated. Official statistics say they will run out in 150 years, globally.

So what is our energy future? The total energy from fossil fuels will probably peak around 2010. What about nuclear power? This relies on another scarce resource — uranium which will peak around 2050. Nuclear power is so expensive to deploy, it is not likely to expand beyond its present level.

93% of our energy sources are set to go into decline in the next few years. We’re using that energy to produce products so those resources are also becoming scarce. Even solar voltaic panels use scarce minerals.

Virtually every country on earth is starting to see problems with fresh water.

Soil depletion is another serious problem.

The world’s grain production has been declining for the last several years.

Of course, we are seeing the effects of climate change. As Rob Hopkins mentioned, the summer of 2007 was a wake up call for planet earth. Climate change is proceeding much faster.

The peak generation — the baby boomers — have alot to answer for. They are responsible for all the consuming. Limits to growth collapse has already begun. The future is already here — it’s just that it hasn’t spread out yet.

Civilisations have collapsed in the past, with resource depletion as a common cause. The Mayan culture, for example, experienced massive soil depletion and the elites of the time were too busy competing with one another and accumulating power to deal with it. The Romans were another civilisation to fall.

We’re still pushing the same strategies that got us into trouble in the first place. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns so that we will experience a contraction. The question is, ‘Will it be a controlled contraction or a chaotic one?’

Clearly, there will be less available energy. As 1% is from wind and tidal power, can it really support us? Certainly not! We’ll need:

* more agriculture
* a massive relocation of people
* massive replacement of infrastructure

The model in the twenty-first century will be re-ruralisation and more human labour in agriculture. The twenty-first century farmer will have 5 acres, lots of friends, and an intensive knowledge of ecology. Now relocation is virtually inevitable due to rising sea levels.

Infrastructure means transport structure, including cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, etc. Even if we built lots of electric cars, it wouldn’t make a difference because these are inefficient in terms of the whole system. Mass transport is the answer along with walking and cycling. The redesign required is massive. How can we accomplish this? Richard offered these scenarios:

1. Fascism revisited – government pushes through and represses or suppresses problems it hasn’t solved through the military and corporations.

2. Eco-deal – eco-keynesianism

3. Bottom up – explosion of transition with breakdown of inept national governments.

We may see all three of these operating together or in succession.

What to do? Work at all levels of sustainability: personal; local and regional; and national and international. By teaching everyone and creating community resilience, we’ll avoid joblessness, homelessness and stealing food from each other’s gardens just to survive. Even if half the communities in the world solve their problems and the rest do not find another energy path for the future, we’re all cooked.

The people lobbying for change need to be supported. Richard suggests that we put fossil fuels at the centre of our transitioning work. They’re what got us here, yielded great benefits, and created hazards, such as acid rain, greenhouse gases, oil dependency, water pollution. These problems are unique in our time. If we don’t fix them, life may not continue for us and other species.

The GOOD THING is if we address just the transition away from fossil fuels, we solve the problem in one stroke — how strategic!

The next energy transition is inevitable. Do we want to be proactive or let the worst case scenarios unfold?

With economic relocalisation, agriculture will be transformed again and we may even go back to horticulture. Anthropologists draw a clear distinction between the two. All flowed from a particular relationship with the natural world. We need to produce more responsibly in a way that is knowledge-intensive and labour-intensive — interesting to think about.

The mandatory message of hope is there is no hope for a soft landing, or more of the same, or business as usual, or perpetual growth, or normal life as we’ve come to know it.

(But isn’t that GOOD NEWS?)

We’re headed into dramatic change — all beings throughout history have known hard times, at times. Get ready for an economic depression or an economic contraction.

If we can experience this as a creative, co-operative thing, we will benefit ourselves and our natural world. This brings us back to language because it makes rapid societal change possible. It’s possible to use language responsibly to respond to reality. The power of communication to reshape society can be seen in WWII and Cuba.

We need to emphasise to each other what’s not at peak:

* community
* satisfaction from honest work
* happiness
* wellbeing
* co-operation
* free time
* ingenuity
* artistry
* intergenerational solidarity
* beauty of the built environment.

There’s no single right way. We need to support each other’s strategies. Those who are excluded from the process will feel left out and may undermine the strategy.

In closing, Richard said it’s important to reaffirm our commitment to acting and taking out the message in a way that is coherent, consistent, and credible, with accurate information and a storyline based on good data.

The pace of critical events is increasing so we have to be prepared to frame these events and present a concrete proposal in response.

If we can make it through this bottleneck, we will deserve to think of ourselves as an intelligent species.

To find out more about Richard’s work, visit:

More soon when Richard offers his next presentation, Resilient Communities. Also joining us will be Scottish MSP, Richard Lochhead, speaking on Renewable Energy in Scotland.

– Mattie Porte –

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