#152: Beyond the Peak

MuseLetter #152 / December 2004
by Richard Heinberg

[Closing Address, by Richard Heinberg, to the First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, Yellow Springs Ohio, November 14, 2004]

First let me take this opportunity to express my great thanks to Pat Murphy, Faith Morgan, and Megan Quinn of Community Service, who have organized this conference so thoughtfully and successfully.

We have already heard a lot of talk this weekend, and I don’t want to tax us further with yet more information. I see in the program that I am supposed to speak on “Hope and Vision: Solutions for Planet Earth.” It seems to me that several other presenters have already given us plenty of hope and vision; I am not sure I have much to add in that regard. But perhaps I could take these few minutes to share with you some philosophical thoughts on the big picture – on our plight and opportunity from a historical perspective.

We are, it seems to me, seeing the beginning of the end of industrial civilization.

That word civilization is a tricky one. We are trained to think of it as connoting everything refined, cultured, and secure. The alternative is barbarism, is it not?

Well, not necessarily – not, at least, from a historical or anthropological perspective.

For several years in the 1990s I was a member of an academic organization called the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, which, like most such outfits, holds yearly meetings at which professors entertain one another with their latest iterations of sometimes indecipherably subtle theories. The members of ISCSC, or “issy” as it is affectionately called, could never quite settle on a definition of the word civilization, but there was general agreement that civilizations are good and very worthy of comparative study. Thus the paper I read one year, “A Primitivist Critique of Civilization,” didn’t go over particularly well.

But while the word civilization may be hard even for experts to define, its derivation is clear enough; it comes from the Latin civis, meaning “city.” Civilized people are city builders. But this is hardly a complete or even useful explanation; there are surely other factors involved, including writing, numeracy, trade, and a system of social classes. According even to these few criteria, there have been about 24 distinct civilizations so far.

Now, I think we all have a clear sense that our particular civilization is qualitatively different from any other in history – from the Chacoan, for example, or the Mayan, or the Mesopotamian, or the classical Roman or Greek. Ours is the first, and will be the only, fossil-fueled civilization. It is civilization on steroids, civilization on multiple carafes of espresso, civilization on rocket fuel. We supersize it; we want it done yesterday. Consequently we have chewed up and spit out more of the Earth’s resources more quickly than any other group of humans has ever managed to do.

Of course, civilizations produce wonderful cultural artifacts: pyramids, temples, literature, music, and so on. Perhaps because the American oil empire has grown up so quickly and rootlessly, its cultural products – though admittedly impressive in some ways (consider the modern Hollywood blockbuster movie with its multi-million-dollar special effects) – often have an ephemeral quality, a superficiality, and an emotionally manipulative commercial utilitarianism, that makes many of us less than proud.

Our buildings, clothes, utensils, containers, and tools – all aspects of our designed environment – have come to be shaped by fuel-fed machines rather than by human hands. If we can make them faster, or if we can make more of them more cheaply with machines, economics requires that we do so. As a result, we have become starved for beauty – the beauty of nature, and the beauty of careful, skilled, individual hand production rooted in slowly and painstakingly evolved culture that is itself rooted in a particular landscape. Perhaps we suffer unknowingly from an unrecognized mass disease: chronic, pernicious beauty deficiency.

One interesting thing to note about civilizations is that they have a nasty habit of collapsing. Many of them have come to their ends for similar reasons, and often the process of collapse has begun within only years of their reaching their maxima of geographical extent, military power, and accumulated wealth. Clive Ponting, in his marvelous book A Green History of the World, offers a familiar explanation: ancient societies typically drew down their resource base and destroyed their habitat. They cut too many trees, exhausted their topsoil, emptied their wells.

Joseph Tainter, in The Collapse of Complex Societies, provides a more subtle account. He attributes collapse to declining returns on investments in complexity. And he defines collapse itself as a reduction in social complexity. A flattening of the pyramidal class structure, a withdrawal of imperial overreach, a rupturing of trade relations – all are symptoms of the involuntary simplification of a society.

Parenthetically, I should note that Tainter, who certainly respects indigenous cultures, is not saying that non-civilized societies aren’t complex in terms of their rituals and myths, or their ecological understandings. He defines complexity in terms of quantifiable social elements like the number of distinctive tools and tool systems, or the number of social classes and occupations present.

Societies become complex in order to solve their problems. We adopted agriculture to make up for the caloric deficit consequent upon our overhunting of megafauna during the late Pleistocene. We irrigated so that we could practise agriculture in seasonally arid places. We built social hierarchies to allocate irrigation allowances from a single river to hundreds or thousands of individual farmers, or to store and distribute grain from seasonally abundant harvests.

At first, such investments in social and technological complexity may yield dizzying returns, and societies that make them often grow quickly and tend to overpower their neighbors. An empire may develop, and may persist for centuries.

But the strategy of social complexification imposes hidden costs that gradually build up. The support population eventually tires under the burden.

Once the point of declining returns is reached, almost anything can push a society into decline. Climate change and other environmental disasters sometimes play a role. Typically, civilizations that are near their point of collapse become involved in wars over resources, and they are often plagued by poor leadership that is unable to understand the nature of the challenge or to propose effective responses.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Surely a civilization whose entire basis rests upon the extraction and use – and thus the depletion – of a few non-renewable resources is the most vulnerable sort of civilization that has ever existed.

Most scientists I know who study these things have come to the conclusion that we are living near the end of the current empire, the first truly global empire in the history of our species. By “end” I don’t mean that the whole thing will come crashing down tomorrow or next year. Historically, collapses have usually occurred over a period of decades or centuries. In our case the signs of diminishing returns, and of overextension, are already unmistakable. And, perverse as the comment may seem, I don’t think collapse, in this instance, would necessarily be such a bad thing.

As Tainter points out, collapse really just means a return to the normal pattern of human life – life, that is, in tribes or villages: small communities, if you will. Collapse is an economizing process in which a society reverts to a level of complexity that is capable of being sustained.

This is all so easy to understand from an academically detached perspective. But of course we are not Martian anthropologists observing the events through a telescope; we are talking about the circumstances of our lives.

So what do you do if you are living at the end of an empire? I suppose one rational response would be to eat, drink, and be merry. Why not? It sure beats worrying oneself to death over events one can’t control, and thus squandering whatever moments of normalcy and chances for happiness may remain before the end comes.

Somehow, I think that you here have other ideas about what to do. I suspect that if you had been passengers on the Titanic, you would not have been drinking yourselves into a stupor at the bar; you’d have been strapping deck chairs together, finding a way to increase the signal strength of the ship’s radio, or inventing waterproof buoyant suits that could be remanufactured from hemp ropes using equipment commandeered from the ship’s machine shop.

I probably can’t tell you anything you should be doing that you are not already doing about as well as you can under the circumstances. We all know the drill – grow more of your own food, conserve energy, become active in your local community, learn useful arts and skills, stock up on hand tools. In essence: we must plant the seeds for what can and will survive, for a way of life as different from industrialism as the latter is from the medieval period, a way of life whose full flowering we ourselves may never see in our brief lifetimes.

Many of you have been teaching this stuff for decades; you don’t need a “how-to” lecture from me.

However it can be helpful to know that there are others thinking the same thoughts, grappling with the same challenges, and finding different but complementary strategies; and it seems to me that this conference has helped immeasurably in this regard. We know each other now, and we know that we are in this together. We know also that we have passed a few recent signal events and are approaching another very important one. It’s helpful to compare notes.

Somewhere this weekend I heard the inevitable comment that we are preaching to the choir. That’s not the way I look at it. To bend that metaphor, I feel as though in this moment I am addressing a council of preachers.

We have only a dwindling amount of time to build lifeboats – that is, the needed alternative infrastructure. It has been clear for at least 30 years what characteristics this should have – organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable. We have known for a long time that the status quo – a society that is machine-oriented, competitive, inequitable, fast-paced, globalized, monocultural, and corporate-dominated – is deadening to the human spirit and ecologically unsustainable.

Sustainable. Unsustainable. What do these words really mean?

Perhaps peak oil at last provides the word sustainability with teeth. People now speak of “sustainable development,” “sustainable growth,” and “sustainable returns on investment.” That, my friends, is sustainability lite. The word has been diluted and denatured almost beyond recognition.

An understanding of peak oil provides us with a minimum definition of the word: can we do this, whatever it is we’re talking about, without fossil fuels? If we can, then it just might be a sustainable activity or process. There’s no guarantee: there are a lot of human activities that don’t involve fossil fuels and that are not sustainable – like large-scale whaling with sailing ships, or intensive irrigation agriculture in soil that isn’t properly drained.

But if you can’t do it without fossil fuels, by definition, it ain’t sustainable.

And that includes most of what we do in North America these days.

What we here are saying is that a transition to a lower level of social-technological complexity need not be violent, need not be chaotic, and need not entail the loss of the values and cultural achievements of which we are most proud as a society. And the end result could be far more humane, enjoyable, and satisfying than life currently is for citizens of this grandest of empires.

Even though this conference is spectacularly well attended from the standpoint of the expectations of the organizers, we are comparatively few. And the message we are communicating is not being heard by the great majority of our fellow citizens. It is probably optimistic to think that it will be understood by more than one or two percent of the population. However, if that seed nucleus of the total citizenry really gets it, we may have a chance. We all know what seeds are capable of.

I’m reminded of the Populist rural movement of the late 19th century, which altered America’s political landscape and very nearly diverted the US away from its imperial, corporatist destiny back toward the agrarian ideal of Jefferson. The Populists spread their word, starting in rural Texas, to nearly every county in the South, East, West, and Midwest. Their method? They trained 40,000 public speakers. Then, at grange halls, county fairs, and Chautauquas, they painstakingly educated their fellow citizens about the banking cartels, the trusts, and the currency system, and about how local communities could take charge of their own economies once again.

The 1898 presidential election proved to be the undoing of the movement: the Populists had decided to bet the farm on electoral politics and ran William Jennings Bryan, who was beaten by the arch-imperialist William McKinley, himself soon to die at the hand of an anarchist assassin.

We’ve just had an election too. And, unless it is contested, it may well mark the unequivocal end of the Republic, and of national electoral democracy in this country.

But just as it is becoming altogether clear that we are living in an empire, we are seeing clear signs that the empire is itself nearing its fate.

My friends, it is a time to be hopeful. It is a good time to cherish one another and embrace the young and fortify them with our experiences and vision, and to trust in their ability to find their own appropriate response to the events ahead.

There will be sustainable human cultures on this planet a century from now. In fact, that’s the only kind of cultures there will be. And I think we can reasonably hope that at least some of those cultures will be able to trace their lineage to the seemingly marginalized hippies, activists, energy geeks, permaculturists, communitarians, organic farmers, eco-city planners, and plain citizens who started educating their neighbors about peak oil early in the century.

We have done some good work already, but we have a lot more to accomplish. Perhaps we now have a better grasp of the context in which our work must continue, and of its crucial importance for the survival of our species.

May we apply ourselves with renewed confidence, commitment, and good humor. We can create beauty and live in beauty. We can live in joy, knowing that our efforts will sprout roots, trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. We can dwell in community, as we share each other’s lives and visions, talents and resources, concerns and needs, and learn to support one another and work together.

It is a scary time to be alive, but it is a wonderful time to be alive. It is good to know that there is so much accumulated intelligence and compassion among us. This has been a fabulous conference with extraordinary presenters and presentations, and even more amazing participants. We leave here with gifts of knowledge, encouragement, perspective, and passion. Thank you.

[For more information about the conference, and to find out about Community Service, go to www.communitysolution.org.]

Observations on the Whimpering Extinction of American Electoral Democracy

November the second 2004 was a dark day for the future of our world. Just how dark we are likely to find out soon enough.

Like many other people whom I’ve since compared notes with, I wandered around in a depressed daze Tuesday evening and much of the next day. The two questions I asked myself are ones that millions were no doubt pondering: What can we learn from these events, and where do we go from here?

It seems to me that the answers to these questions are going to take a while to emerge. One thing is clear, though: We have to start with a realistic understanding of what happened.

In the days before the election I anticipated a Bush win, primarily because of the numbers of electronic voting machines in place in strategic states and counties. At least a third of voters used these new “black box” paperless touch-screen machines; the problems with them – their vulnerability to tampering and their inability to provide the basis for a verifiable recount, as well as the political partisanship of their manufacturers – have been discussed extensively for the past two years. I predicted to friends that only a landslide vote for Kerry could give him the White House.

On the day of the election, as I learned of the high voter turnout, I became guardedly optimistic about a Kerry victory. People rarely vote in record numbers merely to endorse the status quo; usually a high turnout means that the electorate wants a change. Informal early exit polls showed strong numbers for Kerry. Was this the landslide that might overwhelm Bush’s secret weapon?

Then the official vote counting began, and the news was grim. By Wednesday morning everyone was agreed: Bush had won, Kerry had lost. The people had spoken.

Within hours, leftist spokespeople were offering radio and newspaper commentaries that offered one or both of two rather predictable responses. First, the Democrats blew it: they misread the electorate; they didn’t get out the vote; they didn’t put forward a sufficiently (fill in the blank) program. Second, people on the left need to regroup, organize, and hone their message so that it appeals to more voters next time around.

It seems to me that both responses are pointless. Why? They miss the single most important aspect of the situation.

This election, like the presidential election of 2000 and several of the mid-term elections of 2002, was stolen.

The evidence of massive voting fraud in this instance is convincing but – due to the nature of the voting machines themselves – probably impossible to prove legally. That, of course, is the genius of the fraud strategy.

In most states where there was a paper trail, exit polls matched the official tally closely. In states where there was no paper trail, exit polls diverged widely from official tallies, in Bush’s favor in every instance. The odds against this occurring, absent fraud, are staggering (one statistics professor calculated them as 250,000,000 to one).

In Florida, exit polls favored Kerry by 0.7 percent, while Bush officially won by 5.1 percent. If the election results had been based on exit polls rather than official tallies from computer voting machines, Kerry would easily have won a minimum of six more states and the presidency.

In Ohio, the strategy (implemented in this case by Republican secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell) included placing fewer voting machines than needed in Democratic areas, leading to hours-long waiting lines that discouraged thousands of voters.

Bizarre as it may seem, the counting of 80 percent of the total votes nationally – whether from computer touch-screen machines or optically-scanned paper ballots – was delegated to two private companies with strong family ties to one another. Bob Urosevich, president of Diebold Election Systems, is also the founder of ES&S, a competing voting machine company of which his brother Todd is currently vice president. Both brothers are millenarian Christians, and both are avowed and dedicated Bush supporters.

The details of the fraud may emerge gradually as the result of painstaking research. They will be reported only haphazardly and dismissively in the mainstream press. A recount of the vote in Ohio, and perhaps in a few other states, which is being mounted by the Greens and Libertarians, may succeed in highlighting some of the voting irregularities.

The outcome of the election is unlikely to be altered in any case.

The lessons we draw from the events need to reflect the reality, not the illusion. If it is true that Bush won only as a result of massive voting fraud, then telling people that “we need to work harder to get out the vote next time” or “we screwed up by not sending a message that resonated with the electorate” is an insulting misdirection and waste of everyone’s time and attention.

Meanwhile, one party now controls all three branches of government and the machinery that decides who wins elections. There is every reason to assume that the engineers of this power grab will use the next months and years to consolidate their gains by attempting to destroy the entire infrastructure of environmental, consumer, and human rights nonprofit organizations in this country, perhaps using “tax reform” as the means. Who is to stop them?

We have finally reached the point where we must sadly declare that national electoral democracy in the US is dead. What we have instead is a single-party fascist state. Yet most people seem still to be muddling along under illusions drilled into them as children in civics class. They are living in a holographic projection of democracy, a Matrix of normalcy, while the reality is something very different.

One indication as to just how we have already traveled along the road to stealth dictatorship is the fact that there are growing numbers of binding federal regulations that are unpublished and entirely inaccessible to citizens. According to Secrecy News, such regulations include the one that authorizes airport security screeners to randomly pat-search passengers. When an ultra-conservative former Republican Congresswoman asked to see a copy of the statute that authorized the procedure, she was told that the regulation was categorized as “sensitive security information” that could not be viewed by citizens. The Homeland Security Act creates an entire system of such secret laws.

Does anyone suppose that a second Bush term will lead anywhere but further along the path to secrecy, the curtailment of constitutional rights, detentions without charges or trials, universal surveillance, the torture of prisoners, the abandonment of international law, more bombings of populations in resource-rich regions, and the deployment of more imperial forces in other nations?

What follows are some of my recent, admittedly rather dark, ruminations on how political events in the US may play out in the years ahead.

The genius of the framers of the US Constitution lay in their creation of a system whereby tepid periodic reforms could be implemented by means of the ballot box, thus forestalling violent revolutions. That system, which actually had as its main purpose the protection of wealth and privilege, has become gradually more corrupted with each passing decade. Evidently, the elites became greedier over time and decided that they wanted it all.

Historically, the political pendulum in the US has had a tendency to swing from left to right, or right to left, about every 35 years. That metaphorical pendulum should be due for a swing to the left. Due to changing demographics – growing Hispanic and African-American populations, and expanding numbers in Democratic-majority regions – it would seem that (under ordinary conditions) Democrats should be expected to control the nation’s politics for the next few decades.

By colonizing the media, by packing the courts, and now especially by taking charge of the very machinery of democracy, the Bush-led Right has succeeded in nailing the pendulum in place at its furthest extreme.

This can work for a while, but not forever. Sooner or later, the momentum will build until it is unstoppable. But because it has been held back, the pendulum will swing with a violence and vengeance not seen in recent US history. Whether this happens in six months or twenty years, it will happen as surely as day follows night.

Meanwhile, the current administration is gloating insufferably, its hubris unbounded. Bush and his extreme right-wing advisors are purging the CIA and the State Department, removing competent careerists and inserting ideology-driven loyalists. But there are not enough competent loyalists to go around, and so the government itself is destined to become increasingly dysfunctional. Valuable intelligence information will be suppressed; yes-men will continue to be promoted. A society cannot function forever on the basis of convenient illusions.

As the economy founders and resource wars require military service from unwilling young people, the nation will begin to come apart at the seams. The lower classes will deliberately be further impoverished to provide an incentive for enlistment in the quickly expanding armed forces and domestic police forces that will be required to maintain order throughout the American Empire. Eventually, however, attempting to maintain order with force alone will be about as successful in New York or Miami or Seattle as it is in Fallujah.

The revolution may initially be spearheaded by idealistic leftists. But the heavy lifting, when it finally occurs, will be accomplished by others: at some point, disaffected elements of the military, the CIA, and the international financial elite will weigh in; and when they do, the seemingly impregnable fortress of the Bushites may be shaken to its foundations. If by this time the Bush crew has managed to precipitate a global resource war, other nations will become involved. The US may end up being “liberated” from Bush in a manner vaguely analogous to the way the German people were relieved of Hitler, or the Italians of Mussolini.

Since it is the heavy lifters who will have turned the tide, they will also seek to take credit for, and determine the outcome of, the events. The result will likely not be a leftist utopia, but some reformist state that is (as usual) friendly to the interests of the elites.

All of this is what should be expected if we simply imagine the twenty-first century to be a continuation of the twentieth. However, from the standpoint of population and resources the new century represents an entirely different era in the human journey. The ground is shifting under us. Oil depletion and climate change will create an entirely new context in which political struggles will be played out. Within that context, it is not just freedom, democracy, and equality that are at stake, but the survival of billions of humans and of whole ecosystems.

In the days ahead we will each have to think about where we are going to put our energy and effort during this time. The overthrow of tyrannies is certainly a worthy occupation, and those who devote themselves to the task in this instance will have many opportunities for conspicuous heroism.

However, at this point in history, as industrial civilization crumbles, lifeboats are needed – survivable local communities capable of weathering the storms of war, ecological collapse, and economic calamity. At least some of us must devote our efforts to these practical infrastructural needs, which center on the building of local networks for food, water, energy, and monetary security.

Perhaps the choice need not be an exclusive one. Up to this point I have attempted to pursue both lines of effort in my writings. However I am unsure whether it will remain possible to be effective at lifeboat building while being politically active within the developing context of state repression. We shall see.

For more information on the election fraud: Black Box Voting

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