Peak oil educator Richard Heinberg challenges “binary thinking”
When he scans the current geopolitical lay-of-the-land, California-based peak oil educator and author Richard Heinberg can only reach one conclusion.
"We’re fighting over the crumbs,” Heinberg told the Straight via cellphone from 100 Mile House, where he was giving a talk on February 8. “That’s what’s happening. The world is preparing to fight over the crumbs.”
The crumbs Heinberg speaks and writes of are finite fossil fuels, specifically those deriving from oil, natural gas and coal. In particular, we see current examples with the proposed continental pipelines, the tar sands of Alberta, and the Prime Minister’s boosterism of faster and faster exploitation of these resources.
Heinberg deals with them all in his upcoming book, The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality (New Society).
The premise of the book, according to Heinberg, is that “not only is perpetual economic growth impossible in principle—because it implies ever-increasing consumption of resources on a finite planet—but actually we’re reaching the limits to economic growth in real time, right now.”
Heinberg’s general claim is backed by the basic premise that growth right now, and ever since the onset of real economic slowdown in 2008, is constrained by “debt, depletion and disaster.” He’ll be talking about all this when he presents the opening lecture of the World Community Film Festival, at Langara College on Friday (February 10).
It is pretty much the same subject matter contained in Heinberg’s 2003 early-summer visit to Vancouver, where he spoke alongside other members of the Post Carbon Institute, namely former Vancouver resident Julian Darley and UBC professor Bill Rees. The groundbreaking nature of that panel discussion, both at UBC and at the Planetarium, prompted the Straight to call them “Cassandras” at the time.
“Cassandra had the curse of predicting disaster and being right, but never being believed,” Heinberg quipped. “Basically it [the tag] is accurate.” The message is still the same, he added.
“Meanwhile, the global economy is hanging by a thread,” he said. “If what I am saying is true, then this is not just a recession that will be followed by a recovery; we’re at a fundamental turning point in our economic history. The reason I wrote the book is I think it’s really important that people understand this. Because if we’re planning for business-as-usual, and everyone thinks that this is just a little hiccup on the road to perpetual growth, then we won’t do the things that are absolutely necessary to prepare—I don’t want to say to defend ourselves—but to prepare ourselves for what’s coming.”
A good start would be to push governments to do the right thing, such as diverting investment toward cleaner alternative energy sources that are renewable or less-damaging. Heinberg noted that reducing consumption and other demand-side measures are also extremely important. (He said the same in his 2006 book The Oil Depletion Protocol, also published by New Society.)
As long as humanity can make the kinds of adjustments needed, and get off of the notion of cheap oil and endless growth, survival as a species is not out of the question, he claimed. Heinberg also said that, because we tend to think of things in “binary” terms, we tend to forget the reality is more complex than either economic abundance or species die-off.
“We went through the Great Depression and two world wars, and people survived,” Heinberg said. “And those were horrific, horrific events. But here we are. And I think the 21st Century is going to have its challenges that will be, in many ways, even harsher than the Great Depression and world wars. And I think that some of those challenges are on our doorstep. But that doesn’t mean that nobody will survive and life will be not worth living and so on. No, we are an amazingly-adaptable species and we’ll get through it. But I think it will sure help if we’re a little bit prepared, and if we have a sense of how to get through these times strategically, rather than being walloped in the face constantly by things that we should have seen coming.”
What do we do? “Anything to build local resilience,” answered Heinberg. “Oil depletion protocol is a good idea, but unlikely to be implemented. that means it's mostly up to local communities and households. Reduce transportation and fossil fuel inputs everywhere possible. Grow more of your own food. Share more with your neighbors. No silver bullets here, just a lot of copper BBs.”
Richard Heinberg speaks at the World Community Film Festival at Langara College on Friday (February 10), at 5:00