Richard Heinberg at his best

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  • Fri, Jun 12, 2009 - 07:20am



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    Richard Heinberg at his best

Recently I’ve begun compiling a list of things to be cheerful about. Here are some items that should bring a smile to any environmentalist’s lips:

World energy consumption is declining. That’s right: oil consumption is down, coal consumption is down, and the IEA is projecting world electricity consumption to decline by 3.5 per cent this year. I’m sure it’s possible to find a few countries where energy use is still growing, but for the US, China, and most of the European countries that is no longer the case. A small army of writers and activists, including me, has been arguing for years now that the world should voluntarily reduce its energy consumption, because current rates of use are unsustainable for various reasons including the fact that fossil fuels are depleting. Yes, we should build renewable energy capacity, but replacing the energy from fossil fuels will be an enormous job, and we can make that job less daunting by reducing our overall energy appetite. Done.

CO2 emissions are falling. This follows from the previous point. I’m still waiting for confirmation from direct NOAA measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it stands to reason that if world oil and coal consumption is declining, then carbon emissions must be doing so as well. The economic crisis has accomplished what the Kyoto Protocol couldn’t. Hooray!

Consumption of goods is falling. Every environmentalist I know spends a good deal of her time railing both publicly and privately against consumerism. We in the industrialised countries use way too much stuff – because that stuff is made from depleting natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and the Earth is running out of fresh water, topsoil, lithium, indium, zinc, antimony … the list is long. Books have been written trying to convince people to simplify their lives and use less, films have been produced and shown on PBS, and support groups have formed to help families kick the habit, but still the consumer juggernaut has continued – until now. This particular dragon may not be slain, but it’s cowering in its den.

Globalisation is in reverse (global trade is shrinking). Back in the early 1990s, when globalisation was a new word, an organisation of brilliant activists formed the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) to educate the public about the costs and dangers of this accelerating trend. Corporations were off-shoring their production and pollution, ruining manufacturing communities in formerly industrial rich nations while ruthlessly exploiting cheap labour in less-industrialised poor countries. IFG was able to change the public discourse about globalisation enough to stall the expansion of the World Trade Organization, but still world trade continued to mushroom. Not any more. China’s and Japan’s exports are way down, as is the US trade deficit.

The number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT) is falling. For decades the number of total miles travelled by all cars and trucks on US roads has relentlessly increased. This was a powerful argument for building more roads. People bought more cars and drove them further; trucks restocked factories and stores at an ever-growing pace; and delivery vans brought more packages to consumers who shopped from home. All of this driving entailed more tires, pavement, and fuel – and more environmental damage. Over the past few months the VMT number has declined substantially and continually, to a greater extent than has been the case since records started being kept. That’s welcome news.

There are fewer cars on the road. People are junking old cars faster than new ones are being purchased. In the US, where there are now more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers, this represents an extraordinary shift in a very long-standing trend. In her wonderful book Divorce Your Car, Katie Alvord detailed the extraordinary environmental costs of widespread automobile use. Evidently her book didn’t stem the tide: it was published in the year 2000, and millions of new cars hit the pavement in the following years. But now the world’s auto manufacturers are desperately trying to steer clear of looming bankruptcy, simply because people aren’t buying. In fact, in the first four months of 2009, more bicycles were sold in the US than cars and trucks put together (more than 2.55 million bicycles were purchased, compared to fewer than 2.4 million cars and trucks). How utterly cool.

The world’s over-leveraged, debt-based financial system is failing. Growth in consumption is killing the planet, but arguing against economic growth is made difficult by the fact that most of the world’s currencies are essentially loaned into existence, and those loans must be repaid with interest. Thus if the economy isn’t growing, and therefore if more loans aren’t being made, thus causing more money to be created, the result will be a cascading series of defaults and foreclosures that will ruin the entire system. It’s not a sustainable system given the fact that the world’s resources (the ultimate basis for all economic activity) are finite; and, as the proponents of Ecological and Biophysical Economics have been saying for years, it’s a system that needs to be replaced with one that can still function in a condition of steady or contracting consumption rates. While that sustainable alternative is not yet being discussed by government leaders, at least they are being forced to consider (if not yet publicly) the possibility that the existing system has serious problems and that it may need a thorough overhaul. That’s a good thing.

Gardening is going gonzo. According to the New York Times (“College Interns Getting Back to Land,” May 25) thousands of college students are doing summer internships on farms this year. Meanwhile seed companies are having a hard time keeping up with demand, as home gardeners put in an unusually high number of veggie gardens. Urban farmer Will Allen predicts that there will be 8 million new gardeners this year, and the number of new gardens is expected to increase 20 to 40 per cent this season. Since world oil production has peaked, there is going to be less oil available in the future to fuel industrial agriculture, so we are going to need more gardens, more small farms, and more farmers. Never mind the motives of all these students and home gardeners – few of them have ever heard of Peak Oil, and many of the gardeners are probably just worried whether they can afford to keep the pantry full next winter; nevertheless, they’re doing the right thing. And that’s something to applaud.

But wait, before our cheering becomes an uncontrollable frenzy, we should stop to remember that most of these developments are due to an economic crisis that is taking a huge toll. With the possible exception of the last item on the list (and maybe some of those bicycle purchases), we’re not talking about voluntary behaviour that’s evidence of forethought and collective intelligence. Whatever gains in sustainability these trends signify have come at an enormous cost in terms of unemployment, homelessness, and lost retirement savings.

Take all this to its tragic extreme. What if a billion humans died over the course of, say, the next ten years from starvation or swine flu? That would take a lot of pressure off natural systems. There would be more space for other species to flourish, and consumption of natural resources (oil, coal, water, and so on) would decline dramatically, improving the economic prospects of the survivors. So from a certain perspective this unimaginable nightmare might be seen as a good thing – though hardly anyone who actually experienced it would likely see it that way.

Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that this whole line of thought may be dangerous. Some free-market PR hack from the Cato Institute is likely reading along right now just as you are, trying out headlines for a press release. “Environmentalist delights in economic collapse!” might be a good one, or “Environmentalist wants billions of humans to die!” One way to avert that kind of backlash is to keep mum about the fact that economic contraction actually does have benefits, and so far most other environmental writers have been playing it safe in that regard. I’ve crossed the line here, so watch out. I might get us all in trouble.

Now back to our theme. At its core, the dilemma is this: we humans have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity through overpopulation and over-consumption, and have created all sorts of other problems in doing so (such as climate change). But nature will take care of all these difficulties. Overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease. Over-consumption will be reined in by resource depletion and scarcity. Climate change will take longer to fix, maybe thousands or millions of years – assuming we don’t turn Earth into Venus.

But nature’s ways of solving our problems is not going to be pleasant. And so the enormous, overriding question confronting our species during the remainder of this century will be: are we humans capable of getting out ahead of nature’s checks so as to proactively rein in our population and consumption in ways we can live with?

Boil down all the environmental literature of the past century, and that’s the essence of most of it. So far, that literature has not had its desired effect: our species has continued to expand both in numbers and in per-capita impact.

But the items outlined above suggest that we’ve turned a corner. It’s no longer a matter of nature “eventually” providing checks on humanity’s boisterous expansionism. That’s starting to happen. And it’s not yet due to climate change: yes, we are indeed seeing potentially catastrophic impacts in terms of melting glaciers and so on, but those by themselves have not tempered the economic juggernaut. Instead, it is resource depletion that has begun to slow the freight train of industrialism. Over the past two or three years, high energy prices burst the bubble of unsupportable property prices and pulled the rug out from beneath the teetering financial derivatives market.

That’s what the whole Peak Oil discussion has really been about. It’s an attempt to identify the key resource whose scarcity will tip the global economy from growth to contraction.

But wait: this essay was supposed to help us look on the bright side. The discussion’s getting kind of dark here.

OK, my point is this: we have reached the inevitable turning point. The growth trance that has gripped the world for the past several decades is in the process of ending. Even if we get short periods of economic growth, that growth will be in the context of a significantly contracted economy and will only be temporary in any case, as Peak Oil and other resource constraints will quickly damper increasing economic activity. Gradually, as “recovery” gets put off for another month, another year, another few years, people may begin to realise that the expansionary phase of the era of cheap energy is finished. There are of course no guarantees that the public and their business and political leaders will indeed finally “get it”, because the urge to hang onto the growth illusion will be very strong indeed. But if the misery persists, there’s at least a chance that understanding will finally dawn in the collective mind of our species – the understanding that we must get out ahead of nature’s checks and deliberately reduce the scale of the human enterprise in ways that maximise the prospects of both present and future generations.

But all won’t automatically come to that conclusion on their own. A fundamental change in our comprehension of the human condition will depend on more and more public intellectuals articulating the message of deliberate adaptation to limits, so that the general populace has the necessary conceptual tools with which to mentally process their new circumstances. We will also need far more people working on practical elements of the transition. Those will be ongoing needs – a growth opportunity, if you will pardon the irony, for smart and articulate young people interested in making a difference. And they’ll be most successful if they find ways of framing needed behaviour and attitudinal changes in ways that are attractive and inviting – as the Transition Initiatives so brilliantly do.

So in that sense, when I say “Look on the bright side,” no irony or sarcasm is intended.

  • Fri, Jun 12, 2009 - 07:47am

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    Re: Richard Heinberg at his best

 How good is all that!

  • Fri, Jun 12, 2009 - 09:08am

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    Re: Richard Heinberg at his best

Here’s the original article

Rex Weyler wrote an article @ Green Peace about exponential population growth

Population: The real inconvenient truth

In 1972, Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe from the budding Greenpeace Foundation in Canada attended the world’s first UN Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, where they succeeded in putting nuclear bomb tests on the agenda with the help of Australia and Japan. However, one critical issue failed to make the agenda of this historic meeting: human population.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, urged the delegates to discuss ways to mitigate human population growth as a driving force of ecological destruction. Barry Commoner, the scientist who first detected radioactive Strontium-90 in children’s teeth, argued against Ehrlich, insisting that human population growth did not pose a critical environmental threat. Technology, he believed, would allow us to feed billions more people, and the real issue is wasteful consumption by the rich.

Ehrlich agreed about excessive consumption, but maintained that sheer population growth would degrade the planetary ecosystems and lead to humanitarian and ecological catastrophes. He urged environmentalists to advocate a global contraception drive to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the human fertility rate. Ehrlich’s proposals, however, collided with cultural, political, and religious resistance. The Stockholm conference avoided discussing population, and the environmental movement since 1972 has almost entirely ignored human population growth. Nevertheless, the nagging issue remains, 36 years and three billion people later.


Some resistance to discussing population reflects the common-sense reluctance to blame the world’s poor for our environmental problems. Most environmental groups have focused on the excesses of consumer societies, wilderness protection, pollution, and species loss, all valid issues. China’s response to burgeoning population, the "one-child-per-family" policy, appeared like totalitarian control over personal freedom. Ultimately, however, the greatest obstacle to addressing population growth has been religious and cultural hostility to contraception and women’s rights.

Optimism and facts

While the advocates of eternal human expansion deny the limits to growth, even environmental and government agencies often avoid discussing how to stabilise or reduce human population. For example, the inspiring UN Millennium Development Goals – eradicate hunger and poverty; reduce child mortality and disease; achieve gender equality, maternal health, universal education, and sustainable development – never mention stabilising population.

The notion of "sustainable growth" became popular with the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report. Presumably with good intentions, the report suggests: "What is needed now is a new era of economic growth … that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable… Sustainable development can only be pursued if population size and growth are in harmony with the changing productive potential of the ecosystem."

Real solutions

In the book version of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore writes: "The fundamental relationship between our civilisation and the ecological system of the Earth has been utterly and radically transformed by the powerful convergence of three factors. The first is the population explosion." However, when he gets to his list of 36 things we can do to change society – efficient lighting, recycling – he never mentions population. Is there some reason not to address the "first powerful factor" that has transformed the environment?

We might understand that politicians and even journalists, who are notoriously poor at mathematics, might struggle to understand these properties of living systems. Economists should understand the limits to growth, since most economists are decent mathematics students, but most economists are employed by those who profit from growth and have little interest in natural facts. However, anyone who claims to be an ecologists or a scientist surely must grasp the simple laws of growth if we expect economists and politicians to understand it.

From time immemorial, human population rates grew steadily until about 350 BC, when urban crowding, disease, and war decimated human populations. A great "urban crash" lasted two millennia until the 1700s, when advances in medicine and sanitation allowed population growth rates to match ancient levels, a modest 0.2 percent per year. Thereafter, human population took off, reaching a peak rate of 2.2 percent in 1963, during the era of cheap fuel and massive resource extraction. Since then, the human growth rate has declined to 1.14percent and continues to fall.


Growth economists like to claim this fertility rate falls because of rising global economic activity (GDP), but the evidence suggests otherwise. Population growth rates and GDP rose together prior to 1964. Since then, fertility rates have fallen to zero in many European countries, but not in the US or Saudi Arabia where religious and cultural restraints keep rates high. In the 1970s, fertility rates fell in Spain and Italy, not due to a sudden increase of wealth, but rather due to an increase in women’s rights and available contraception. In Columbia, fertility rates dropped from 6 to 3.5 in 15 years after contraception was made widely available.

Some people fear that talk of stabilising or reducing population invokes totalitarian oppression, the China policy, or worse. Politicians cower at the thought of challenging religious taboos against contraception. However, the best, proven means to stabilise population are simple and offer other humanitarian benefits:

1. Achieve women’s rights worldwide, and 2. Make contraception available.

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