MuseLetter 206 / June 2009 by Richard Heinberg
This month’s MuseLetter brings together two pieces that share a connecting theme — is humanity capable of making the necessary changes to save the planet and so itself? The first article Look on the Bright Side discusses this from the viewpoint of the huge shifts that are already occuring as a result of economic decline. Somebody’s Gotta Do It explores the job of trying to lead change and the challenges faced by all who attempt so to do.
Look on the Bright Side
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 percent 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 industrialized 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.|
|•||Globalization is in reverse (global trade is shrinking). Back in the early 1990s, when globalization was a new word, an organization 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 labor in less-industrialized poor countries. IFG was able to change the public discourse about globalization 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 traveled (VMT) is falling. For decades the number of total miles traveled 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 (over 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 percent 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 behavior 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 are 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.
Okay, 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 realize 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 maximize 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 behavior 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.
Somebody’s Gotta Do It
(First published May 4)
Hi. My job is trying to save the world, and I’d like to tell you a little about my line of work.
First, it’s a job I enjoy. I get to feel good about what I do, and I meet a lot of smart, interesting people. I get to travel to exciting places to attend conferences, and at least some people respect my efforts (though many others think I’m crazy or misguided).
It’s not all a bed of roses. The biggest problems with trying to save the world are: first, that it doesn’t always seem to want to be saved; and second, that those of us trying to save it can’t agree on why it needs saving or how to go about doing so. Let me explain.
When I say “save the world,” I mean preventing human civilization from collapsing in a chaotic, violent way that would entail enormous amounts of suffering and death. I also mean preserving the natural world, so as to minimize species extinctions and the loss of wild habitat. I regard both of these priorities as about equally important, since they are closely interrelated: if civilization collapses chaotically, billions of people will do an enormous amount of damage to remaining ecosystems in their desperate attempts at survival; and if nature goes first, that means civilization will go too, because we rely on ecosystem services for everything we do.
But not everyone who works full-time at saving the world has the same balance of priorities. There are some world-savers who are only (or primarily) concerned about human welfare. Some of these folks are just interested in saving people’s souls by getting them to subscribe to some set of beliefs or other: for them, the world needs “saving” because it is wicked. Others are concerned with human rights or economic justice or international conflict; for them, the biggest threats to our survival are from other people. Then there are those who have concluded that our survival challenge is primarily of an environmental kind: the disappearance of polar bears or honey bees, or the logging of rainforests, or the depletion of resources, or the contamination of the atmosphere or the oceans.
This is a problem. If all of us world-savers can’t get on the same page about what’s wrong, our efforts are likely to lack coherence, or might even cancel one another out. There are no doubt full-time humanitarians who believe that the world needs to be saved from people like me! — from people, that is, who are non-believers and who insist that the size of the human population has to be reduced.
Moreover, if we professional world-savers can’t agree on what the problem is, how do we know there is a problem in the first place? Might the world be better off if we spent our personal energies elsewhere — figuring out how to get rich, or teaching elementary school, or inventing the next generation of social networking software?
Well, I’m obviously personally convinced that the world has some unprecedented challenges on its hands, or I wouldn’t be in this line of work. I could write at great length (as I have elsewhere) about what these challenges are, how they arose, and what we should be doing about them, but there’s no need to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that I think that we humans, by our very nature, and by the rules of biological existence, will always have problems of fairly predictable kinds, but we have recently gained access to concentrated but depleting non-renewable energy sources that have enabled us to grow our population and appetites for commodities of various sorts to utterly unsustainable levels; and in the process of burning carbon-based fuels we have set in motion a process of climate change that is rapidly spiraling out of control. This is going to be a tough set of problems to solve, because it involves changing people’s lifestyles and expectations, sharing nature’s dwindling bounty of non-renewable resources rather than fighting over the crumbs, and finding ways to reduce population proactively without interfering too much with human rights.
To me, all of this seems obvious, steeped as I am in data showing the limits to various resources, the likely consequences of continued economic and population growth, and the rapidly worsening damage to our environment (and hence to our planet’s ability to support future generations of humans). But I often meet sincere, dedicated people who see things quite differently.
Given that there isn’t a consensus among us, can we world-savers accomplish anything useful?
Well, there is something of a consensus after all. These days most environmentalist world-savers seem to be focused on the problem of climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, almost to the exclusion of any other concern. If you ever happen to attend a meeting of environmental activists, you are likely to hear nearly every discussion turn on carbon dioxide emissions — emissions reduction targets, emissions reduction strategies, future emissions scenarios, and climate sensitivity to various levels of emissions. But even within the increasingly numerous and vocal anti-carbon crowd, there are differences of opinion regarding tactics: some (like Dr. James Hansen of NASA, arguably the nation’s top climate scientist) support carbon taxes, reasoning that cap-and-trade policies will take too long to negotiate and can be gamed in various ways; others (like author Bill McKibben, arguably the nation’s top climate activist) support caps, reasoning that new taxes of any kind are a non-starter for political reasons, at least here in the US (don’t worry: Hansen and McKibben are still friends). Many mainstream environmental organizations back the notion of a carbon market, in which permits to emit CO2 would be auctioned and traded; but Friends of the Earth has come out with a paper titled “Subprime Carbon,” arguing that a market in carbon permits will result in “futures contracts to deliver carbon that carry a relatively high risk of not being fulfilled,” leading to a carbon bubble and an eventual collapse in value. While “world-savers” funded by the big energy conglomerates (I put the term in quotes this time because while these folks act like the genuine article in many respects, their real priority is not to save the human or natural world, but merely some company or industry) want carbon permits to be given away to existing polluters, nearly everyone else thinks the permits should be auctioned. Most existing US congressional cap-and-trade bills (like Waxman-Markey) mandate that proceeds from the auctions should go to government, but many activists (like Peter Barnes, author of Capitalism 3.0) say that the proceeds should be distributed equally to all citizens to help defray the increased energy costs that will result from carbon caps.
US climate policy will soon be decided by Congress, and a global policy will then be hashed out in Copenhagen, so environmentalist world-savers are working overtime these days to get their proposals and perspectives heard.
The fact that so many of us are now focused on one problem is good, especially since it is indeed a survival issue. But I fear that some essential details are being overlooked in the process. Here’s a key example.
Reducing carbon emissions essentially means using less coal, oil, and gas (since carbon capture and sequestration is arguably unrealistic on any substantial scale, other than by reforestation and regenerative agricultural practices). Since “clean” sources of energy probably can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels entirely, this means the world will have less energy to go around. (It will no doubt soon have less to go around in any case, because fossil fuels are non-renewable and depleting, and we’ve probably already passed the peak of world oil production — but don’t get me started on that.)
Historically, there has been a very close correlation between energy consumption growth and economic growth, so with less energy available it may not be possible to continue growing the global economy in customary ways. Almost nobody in the climate community wants to talk about that, because the very suggestion that strong, effective climate policies will have a significant economic cost makes such policies far less palatable to folks on Main Street, and certainly to politicians. But I think we should be giving this matter a lot of attention no matter how inconvenient it may be: the fact is, we have an economy that’s designed only to grow; if it stops growing — as has happened over the past six months — the results are perceived as catastrophe. If world energy supplies are set to contract, we need a different kind of economy, one that can still function with a stable or declining throughput of materials and energy. But we’re not even going to start trying to design one until more people start telling the truth about where we’re headed.
This points up one of the dilemmas that go along with trying to save the world: should one just tell the truth fearlessly, or try to frame one’s message so as to make it generally acceptable? The two options aren’t always mutually exclusive, but neither are they exactly the same thing. You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.
It’s a tough balance. If you tell the truth to a fault, you don’t get invited to policy seminars, and politicians avoid you like swine flu. If you sugar coat the message, you have to live with the knowledge that the vast majority of people on our planet have almost no awareness of what is about to happen to them, and you aren’t telling them. Some of us in the world-saving business naturally gravitate to one side of the spectrum or the other, and I try to be respectful about why people make their choices in this regard. I like to think I’m more toward the “tell the truth regardless” end of the continuum, but in certain situations I find myself hedging in order to get along.
So being a world-saver is partly a matter of politics and public relations. That’s not what drew me to this line of work; but, now that I’m in it, I realize that comes with the territory.
What’s the job like on a day-to-day basis? Well, there’s a lot of time spent at the computer — endless emails, keeping up with relevant news feeds, plus a relentless writing schedule. I’m often on the phone talking to reporters or interviewers, gaining support for programs, trying to build coalitions. Ironically, I find myself on airplanes disturbingly often, traveling to conferences or lectures, emitting tons of carbon as I go. If you were just to watch my actions without being able to understand any of the language I’m employing, you might think I’m doing approximately the same work as a high-powered salesman of some kind. That’s not at all comforting for me to think about. Other world-savers spend their time differently — running demonstration projects of various kinds, doing bio-remediation, or organizing their communities.
How secure is my job? Whenever bad things happen to the environment, people start paying attention to it. The anti-nuke movement could wave a tentative victory banner after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Peak Oil movement got a big boost in 2008 when the price of oil shot up to nearly $150 a barrel. And the climate movement gets attention whenever there’s a severe weather event, or when some new report documents that arctic ice is disappearing. In general, lots of matters we all care about are bound to get a lot worse in the foreseeable future (sorry to say this, folks, but we’re in for one hell of a century), so business for us world-savers could pick up smartly.
On the other hand, I have no retirement package (though who does, these days?). And just about all the non-profit organizations that I know of are hurting badly because of the Great Recession. Indeed, the current economic crisis is a very big problem for the world-saving industry. Just about all of our money comes from philanthropic foundations, and most of those foundations have a lot less money to dole out than they did a year ago. (Granted, a lot of world-savers already work for free, and many who are currently getting paid will continue to do what they can when their budgets run out; but it’s difficult to get much done with no money at all, and everyone has bills to pay.)
Also, the average family is less likely to get excited about an environmental issue when its economic survival is at question; indeed, people’s very ability to look ahead and focus on large, complex issues begins to falter. “Polar bears? Who Cares! Just give me my job back!”
Another strange wrinkle: this financial crisis underscores the unpleasant truth that business-as-usual simply can’t continue. It’s no longer a matter of telling folks to stop consuming so much; they’re now finding they literally can’t afford to buy cars, travel, and do all the other things that entail carbon emissions. Should we environmental world-savers change our message accordingly? I don’t hear much discussion among my colleagues along those lines; instead, speakers at climate conferences seem hardly to have noticed that global trade is down, global employment is down, global energy use is down.
But hang on: if world energy use has been declining for the past few months, that should mean that carbon emissions are declining, too. (Note: According to NOAA, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still rising — is there a time lag, or is there some other explanation for this discrepancy between declining energy use and rising CO2 concentrations?) Let’s assume that measurements later this year indeed show atmospheric CO2 levels to be rising slower than before. Trying to explain why something that’s very good for the environment should be correlated with something that’s very bad and painful for ordinary people is understandably awkward, so the possibility that emissions are now declining is hardly being mentioned. But if emissions are truly falling and continue to do so — not because of climate policies, but because of global economic contraction — sooner or later we’ll have to start addressing the fact. And we’d better have a good story. In my view, the fact that the climate movement is being blindsided by this turn of events only underscores the need for a bit more truth-telling about the linkages between energy and the economy.
Are we succeeding? Is the world better off because we’re trying to save it? Well, maybe my opinion is inherently biased, given what I do for a living. As disappointed as I sometimes get about the near-futility of trying to wake my fellow citizens up to the fact that we’re collectively driving straight toward history’s biggest cliff, I don’t see anything better to do with my time. Nor do I see any better hope for humanity than the efforts of the tiny number of our species who understand at least some aspect of our predicament enough to explain it to their fellows and formulate some strategic responses to it.
Would I recommend this line of work to others — to students looking for a career? You bet. There are certainly many other worthwhile things to do with one’s life, but at a time like this we need all the help we can get.