Submitted by Richard Heinberg on January 5, 2009 – 10:28am.
Remember the wall that environmentalists
(like the 1972 "Limits to Growth" authors) have long been saying that
industrial society would eventually hit? Permit me to make the formal
introduction: Industrial society, meet wall; wall, meet industrial
It’s understandably taking a while for the recognition to seep in.
We are not accustomed to seeing every indicator of economic well-being,
in virtually every country in the world, slam into reverse over the
course of a few short months. I still have random conversations with
businesspeople and bankers who say we’ve hit bottom and recovery is at
hand; in their view, this is just another business cycle. I see things
a bit differently: to my eyes the world situation looks like a
slow-motion film of a train wreck, and the sheet metal at the front of
the locomotive has only just begun to crumple.
Everything we thought we knew about the economy is suddenly wrong.
Regarding China, we are accustomed to hearing of a new power plant
being constructed each week, of energy consumption growing at a rate of
10 percent per year or more, of hordes of farmers from the western
provinces rushing to the coastal cities to get manufacturing jobs so
they can buy refrigerators and cars. The current reality: Chinese
factories are now closing by the thousands, workers are rioting and
leaving the coastal cities to return to their farms, energy consumption
is actually declining.
In the US, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are falling dramatically for
the first time since records have been kept. During past recessions or
gas price spikes, people bought smaller cars or drove slower; now
they’re just not driving. Explanation? The use of public transit is up,
but so is unemployment: people without jobs don’t commute to work. And
deliveries of raw materials and finished goods are way down, so trucks
are driving less, too. Gasoline and diesel consumption is down.
Nobody’s buying cars—large OR small—and as a result GM, Ford, and
Chrysler are on deathwatch (even the Japanese automakers are reeling).
Retail businesses are closing so fast that it’s tough to keep track of
who’s still open and who isn’t.
Globalization was the one trend we could all count on in perpetuity
(the world is flat, remember?), but now every metric of global trade is
plummeting, and national leaders are worrying much less about lowering
trade barriers than they are about how to protect their domestic
economies from the cross-border plagues of currency collapse and
Within a year or two we may even begin to see world population growth go into reverse—though not because of policy shifts.
We are in a new era. Welcome to the conclusion and consequences of the industrial growth bubble.
It’s not the end of the world—yet. There is still opportunity to
manage economic collapse in such a way as to lay the groundwork for a
recovery to low-flow sustainability. But not if we concentrate our
efforts on denial, blame, or the propping up of old institutions and
industries that have no chance of survival—all of which are the
obsessions of our current leadership.
A new economic world requires new institutions and new thinking.
These will take a while to emerge. We can lay the conceptual groundwork
now (as the ecological economists and localists have been doing for
some time), but implementation will require cool heads and collective
Meanwhile, individuals will need to protect themselves as best they
can by developing social and practical coping skills: know your
neighbors, garden, repair, make, and make do.
It would be nice to be able to offer a cheerier New Year’s message,
but here we are. It’s more important to have a realistic view of our
situation and prospects. It is nevertheless possible to hope for the
best within those constraints, and I certainly do: 2009 is going to be
a challenging year, but may you weather it well!
Good article, and on point!
I think the necessary transition to sustainable architectures is going to take decades, and we don’t "have" decades – something is going to have to "give."
‘Within a year or two we may even begin to see world population
growth go into reverse—though not because of policy shifts.’ —
This is an interesting question. The severity of
the 1930s depression apparently scared people into not having as many
kids. For the first time in US history, the total fertility rate
dropped below the replacement rate.
of the rich countries are already below the replacement rate. The
question boils down to what effect global recession may have on China,
India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
No one can know
for sure. My unfounded hunch is that global population is going to peak
earlier than the current projection of 9 billion by 2050 … either
because people choose to, or because hard constraints(war, famine, etc.) are imposed against their will. Your mileage may vary …