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#214: Life After Growth

MuseLetter #214 / March 2010 by Richard Heinberg

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 139 KB)
This month’s Museletter contains two pieces. The first is a rather long essay containing an autobiographical sketch of the path that led me to write full-time about the transition to a post-carbon world, titled “Life After Growth.” The second piece, “Goldilocks and the Three Fuels,” was recently published by Reuters.

Life After Growth

What if the economy doesn’t recover?

In 2008 the U.S. economy tripped down a steep, rocky slope. Employment levels plummeted; so did purchases of autos and other consumer goods. Property values crashed; foreclosure and bankruptcy rates bled. For states, counties, cities, and towns; for manufacturers, retailers, and middle- and low-income families, the consequences were—and continue to be—catastrophic. Other nations were soon caught up in the undertow.

In late 2009 and early 2010, the economy showed some signs of renewed vigor. Understandably, everyone wants it to get “back to normal.” But here’s a disturbing thought: What if that is not possible? What if the goalposts have been moved, the rules rewritten, the game changed? What if the decades-long era of economic growth based on ever-increasing rates of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption is over, finished, and done? What if the economic conditions that all of us grew up expecting to continue practically forever were merely a blip on history’s timeline?

It’s an uncomfortable idea, but one that cannot be ignored: The “normal” late-20th century economy of seemingly endless growth actually emerged from an aberrant set of conditions that cannot be perpetuated.

That “normal” is gone. One way or another, a “new normal” will emerge to replace it. Can we build a different, more sustainable economy to replace the one now in tatters?

Let’s be clear: I believe we are in for some very hard times. The transitional period on our way toward a post-growth, equilibrium economy will prove to be the most challenging time any of us has ever lived through. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we can survive this collective journey, and that if we make sound choices as families and communities, life can actually be better for us in the decades ahead than it was during the heady days of seemingly endless economic expansion.

In this essay, I would like to share my conclusions on this subject and the process by which I arrived at them. It’s a bit of a long story, so please bear with me. First, the conclusions.

Four Propositions

The following summary statements are fundamental both to grasping our current situation and managing our way toward a desirable future:

  1. We have reached the end of economic growth as we have known it. The “growth” we are talking about consists of the expansion of the overall size of the economy (with more people being served and more money changing hands) and of the quantities of energy and material goods flowing through it. The economic crisis that began in 2008 was both foreseeable and inevitable, and that it marks a permanent, fundamental break from past decades—a period in which economists adopted the unrealistic view that perpetual economic growth is necessary and also possible to achieve. As we will see, there are fundamental constraints to ongoing economic expansion, and the world is beginning to encounter those constraints. This is not to say the U.S. or the world will never see another quarter or year of growth relative to the previous year. Rather, the point is that when the bumps are averaged out, the general trend-line of the economy (measured in terms of production and consumption of real goods) will be level or downward rather than upward from now on.
  2. The basic factors that will inevitably shape whatever replaces the growth economy are knowable. To survive and thrive for long, societies have to operate within the planet’s budget of sustainably extractable resources. This means that even if we don’t know exactly what a desirable post-growth economy and lifestyle will look like, we know enough to begin working toward them.
  3. It is possible for economies to persist for centuries or millennia with no or minimal growth. That is how most economies operated until recent times. If billions of people through countless generations lived without economic growth, we can do so as well—now and far into the future. The end of growth does not mean the end of the world.
  4. Life in a non-growing economy can be fulfilling, interesting, and secure. The absence of growth does not imply a lack of change or improvement. Within a non-growing or equilibrium economy there can still be a continuous development of practical skills, artistic expression, and technology. In fact, some historians and social scientists argue that life in an equilibrium economy can be superior to life in a fast-growing economy: while growth creates opportunities for some, it also typically intensifies competition—there are big winners and big losers, and (as in most boom towns) the quality of relations within the community can suffer as a result. Within a non-growing economy it is possible to maximize benefits and reduce factors leading to decay, but doing so will require pursuing appropriate goals: instead of more, we must strive for better; rather than promoting increased economic activity for its own sake, we must emphasize whatever increases quality of life without stoking consumption. One way to do this is to reinvent and redefine growth itself.

The transition to a no-growth economy (or one in which growth is defined in a fundamentally different way) is inevitable, but it will go much better if we plan for it rather than simply watching in dismay as institutions we have come to rely upon fail, and then try to improvise a survival strategy in their absence.

In effect, we have to create a desirable “new normal” that fits the constraints imposed by depleting natural resources. Maintaining the “old normal” is not an option; if we do not find new goals for ourselves and plan our transition from a growth-based economy to a healthy equilibrium economy, we will by default create a much less desirable “new normal” whose emergence we are already beginning to see in the forms of persistent high unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ever more frequent and worsening financial and environmental crises—all of which translate to profound distress for individuals, families, and communities.

‘Limits to Growth’

The journey that led to my formulating these propositions began in 1972, when a book called Limits to Growth was making headlines. This relatively compact volume, which went on to become the best-selling environmental book of all time, provoked the first Great Wake-up Call of my adult life, changing the course of everything I have thought and done ever since.

Let me explain why Limits to Growth impacted me so deeply.

That book, which reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population, was also the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

The idea was heretical at the time—and still is: during the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When the economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting ensues. And so predictably a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was prominently “debunked” by public relations efforts organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited. In fact, the original Limits to Growth scenarios have held up quite well*.

In principle, the argument for eventual limits to growth is a slam-dunk. If any quantity grows steadily by a certain fixed percentage per year, this implies that it will double in size every so-many years; the higher the percentage growth rate, the quicker the doubling. A rough method of figuring doubling times is known as the rule of 70: dividing the percentage growth rate into 70 gives the approximate time required for the initial quantity to double. If a quantity is growing at 1 percent per year, it will double in 70 years; at 2 percent per year growth, it will double in 35 years; at 5 percent growth, it will double in only 14 years, and so on. If you want to be more precise, you can use the Y^x button on your calculator, but the rule of 70 works fine for most purposes.

Here’s a real-world example: Over the past two centuries, human population has grown at rates ranging from less than one percent to more than two percent per year. In 1800, world population stood at about one billion; by 1930 it had doubled to two billion. Only 30 years later (in 1960) it had doubled again to four billion; currently we are on track to achieve a third doubling, to eight billion humans, around 2025. No one seriously expects human population to continue growing for centuries into the future. But imagine if it did—at just 1.3 percent per year (its growth rate in the year 2000). By the year 2780 there would be 148 trillion humans on Earth—one person for each square meter of land on the planet’s surface.

It won’t happen, of course.

In nature, growth always slams up against non-negotiable constraints sooner or later. If a species finds that its food source has expanded, its numbers will increase to take advantage of those surplus calories—but then its food source will become depleted as more mouths consume it, and its predators will likewise become more numerous (more tasty meals for them!). Population “blooms” (that is, periods of rapid growth) are always followed by crashes and die-offs. Always.

Here’s another real-world example. In recent years China’s economy has been growing at eight percent or more per year; that means it is more than doubling in size every ten years. Indeed, China consumes more than twice as much coal as it did a decade ago—the same with iron ore and oil. The nation now has four times as many highways as it did, and almost five times as many cars. How long can this go on? How many more doublings can occur before China has used up its key resources—or has simply decided that enough is enough and has stopped growing?

It makes sense that economies should follow rules analogous to those that govern biological systems. Plants and animals tend to grow quickly when they are young, but then they reach a more or less stable mature size. In organisms, growth rates are largely controlled by genes. In economies, growth seems tied to factors such as the availability of resources—chiefly energy resources (“food” for the industrial system). During the 20th century, cheap and abundant fossil fuels enabled rapid economic expansion; at some point, therefore, fossil fuel depletion could put a brake on growth. It is also possible that industrial wastes could accumulate to the point that the biological systems that underpin economic activity (such as forests, crops, and human bodies) begin to fail.

But economists generally don’t see things this way. That’s probably because most current economic theories were formulated during an anomalous historical period of sustained growth. Economists are merely generalizing from their experience: they can point to decades of steady growth in the recent past, and so they simply project that experience into the future. Moreover, they have ways to explain why modern market economies are immune to the kinds of limits that constrain natural systems; the two main ones concern substitution and efficiency.

If a useful resource becomes scarce, its price will rise, and this creates an incentive for users of the resource to find a substitute. For example, if oil gets expensive enough, energy companies might start making liquid fuels from coal. Or they might develop other energy sources undreamed of today. Economists theorize that this process of substitution can go on forever. It’s part of the magic of the free market.

Increasing efficiency means doing more with less. In the U.S., the number of inflation-adjusted dollars generated in the economy for every unit of energy consumed has increased steadily over recent decades (the amount of energy, in British Thermal Units, required to produce a dollar of GDP has been dropping steadily, from close to 20,000 BTU per dollar in 1949 to 8,500 BTU in 2008). That’s one kind of economic efficiency. Another has to do with locating the cheapest sources of materials, and the places where workers will be most productive and work for the lowest wages. As we increase efficiency, we use less—of either resources or money—to do more. That enables more growth.

Finding substitutes for depleting resources and upping efficiency are undeniably effective adaptive strategies of market economies. Nevertheless, the question remains open as to how long these strategies can continue to work in the real world—which is governed less by economic theories than by the laws of physics. In the real world, some things don’t have substitutes, or the substitutes are too expensive, or don’t work as well, or can’t be produced fast enough. And efficiency follows a law of diminishing returns: the first gains in efficiency are usually cheap, but every further incremental gain tends to cost more, until further gains become prohibitively expensive.

Unlike economists, most physical scientists recognize that growth within any functioning, bounded system has to stop sometime.

But this discussion has very real implications, because the economy is not just an abstract concept; it is what determines whether we live in luxury or poverty; whether we eat or starve. If economic growth ends, everyone will be impacted, and it will take society years to adapt to this new condition. Therefore it is important to be able to forecast whether that moment is close or distant in time.

Hence the Limits to Growth study. The authors fed in data for world population growth, consumption trends, and the abundance of various important resources, ran their computer program, and concluded that the end of growth would probably arrive between 2010 and 2050. Industrial output and food production would then fall, leading to a decline in population. (By the way, the Limits to Growth scenario study has been re-run repeatedly in the years since the original publication, using more sophisticated software and updated input data. The results were similar. See Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.)

My Personal Story of Waking Up to Limits

That’s why Limits to Growth meant so much to me when I encountered it at age 21. I realized that the world in which I had been born, raised, and educated was headed toward what is politely known as a “historical discontinuity,” but more colloquially termed “collapse,” “a cliff,” or “a brick wall.” Millions of young people today are having the same experience as they learn about climate change. Welcome to the club.

At the time, I had been trying to make my way as a young musician. My father had been a chemistry and physics teacher, but I had gravitated toward the arts: after being trained as a classical violinist, I had taught myself also to play electric guitar.

As I absorbed the implications of Limits to Growth, I realized that there were more important things than band rehearsals and gigs to attend to, so I mostly left the music business (though I continue to be an avid amateur violinist) and began looking for ways to help shift society toward a more sustainable path. I became a freelance writer-editor and started pursuing projects I thought might lead me toward a better understanding of global trends and of how our species might avert an overwhelming economic and environmental disaster.

It was clear that society would need to undertake fundamental changes. But what were those changes, exactly? I thought the best way to find out would be to form an intentional community as a kind of social laboratory in which to explore alternatives in energy, food production, and lifestyles. I ended up spending most of the next 20 years living in three communities—one in Toronto that I helped establish, and others in Colorado and southern California that had already been going for some time before I joined. Intentional communities (sometimes also known as communes, with many now thriving under the banner of “eco-villages”) are a fascinating social phenomenon, and hundreds still flourish worldwide.

By the early 1990s, I was eager to reconnect with mainstream society and bring what I had learned to a wider audience. My wife, Janet Barocco, and I had met in an intentional community in southern California; together we moved to a suburban home in Santa Rosa. By the latter years of the decade I was teaching in a college program on sustainability that I had helped initiate and design, while also continuing to make my way as a freelance environmental writer.

It was at this point, in 1998, that I heard a second Great Wake-up Call.

Peak Oil

It came in the form of an article in Scientific American by veteran petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère (both of whom had overseen exploration and production in major oil companies), explaining why world oil extraction would reach a maximum around 2010 and begin its permanent decline thereafter. I quickly realized that Peak Oil would likely be the first non-negotiable global limit to growth. The hazy forecast that industrial society would hit a wall sometime in the 21st century was suddenly focused to a painful specificity. Growth had acquired a hard expiration date.

Of course, oil does not pose our only societal limit, or even the most important one in the bigger scheme of things: climate, water, and topsoil are clearly more crucial in the long run. But the peaking of world oil production could potentially bring modern industrial civilization to its knees, while also undercutting coordinated efforts to deal with all sorts of other problems.

Up to this point I had little interest in the subject of oil, or energy generally. However, as I re-read the Scientific American article, I realized the pivotal role petroleum plays in the modern world—in transportation, agriculture, and the chemicals and materials industries. I began spending hours each day studying energy history and oil production statistics. I soon realized that the Industrial Revolution was really the Fossil Fuel Revolution, and that our modern food system is based on cheap fossil energy. Further, the entire phenomenon of continuous economic growth—including the development of the financial institutions that facilitate growth, such as fractional reserve banking and the marketing of derivatives—is ultimately based on ever-increasing supplies of cheap energy. Growth requires more manufacturing, more trade, and more transport, and those all in turn require more energy. This means that if energy supplies can’t expand and energy therefore becomes significantly more expensive, economic growth will falter and the financial system built on expectations of perpetual growth will fail, possibly in a rather spectacular way.

As early as 1998, Campbell, Laherrère, and others were discussing a Peak Oil impact scenario that went like this. Sometime around the year 2010, they theorized, stagnant or falling oil supplies would lead to soaring and more volatile petroleum prices, which would precipitate a global economic crash. This rapid economic contraction would in turn lead to sharply curtailed energy demand, so oil prices would then fall; but as soon as the economy regained strength, demand for oil would recover, prices would again soar, and the economy would relapse. This cycle would continue, with each recovery phase being shorter and weaker, and each crash deeper and harder, until the economy was in ruins. Meanwhile, volatile oil prices would frustrate investments in energy alternatives: one year, oil would be so expensive that almost any other energy source would look cheap by comparison; the next year, the price of oil would have fallen so far that energy users would be flocking back to it, with investments in other energy sources looking foolish. Investment capital would be in short supply in any case because the banks would be insolvent due to the crash, and governments would be broke due to declining tax revenues. Meanwhile, international competition for dwindling oil supplies might lead to wars between petroleum importing nations, between importers and exporters, and between rival factions within exporting nations.

Naturally, I also examined the arguments against the likelihood of a near-term peak in global oil production. What if Campbell and Laherrère were simply wrong? There are those who claim that new technologies for crude oil extraction will increase the amount of oil that can be obtained from each well drilled, and that there are nearly endless reserves of alternative hydrocarbon resources (principally tar sands and oil shale) whose development will seamlessly replace conventional oil, thus delaying the inevitable peak for decades. There are also those who say that Peak Oil won’t be much of a problem even if it happens soon, because the market will find substitutes as quickly as needed—whether electric cars, hydrogen, or liquid fuel made from coal. I found all of these arguments weak: the new oil extraction technologies won’t come into wide use for several years, and will be applicable mostly to newly developed fields (of which there are fewer and fewer each year as exploration efforts continue to show mostly disappointing results), not to the old super-giant oilfields that produce the great bulk of oil that we use today. Tar sands and oil shale will be slow to extract; indeed, in the case of oil shale, we may never derive liquid fuels in any substantial quantity due to the enormous costs of processing this very low-grade material. And substitutes like electric cars, liquids from coal, and hydrogen will take a very long time to develop and will in most cases be much more costly than the equivalent elements of our current system of petroleum fuels and internal combustion engines.

I continued to study the world energy situation for the next few years. And, with every passing year, events appeared to be supporting the Peak Oil thesis and undercutting the views of the oil optimists. Oil prices were trending upward—and for entirely foreseeable reasons: discoveries of new oilfields were continuing to peter out, with most new fields being much more difficult and expensive to develop than ones found in previous years. More oil-producing countries were seeing their extraction rates peaking and beginning to decline despite efforts to maintain production growth using high-tech, expensive secondary and tertiary extraction methods like the injection of water, nitrogen, or CO2 to force more oil out of the ground. Production decline rates in the world’s old, super-giant oilfields, which are responsible for the lion’s share of the global petroleum supply, were accelerating. Production of liquid fuels from tar sands was expanding only slowly, while the development of oil shale remained a hollow promise for the distant future.

I corresponded with and met the authors of the Scientific American article, and interviewed other petroleum geologists and engineers. One expert after another offered further reasons for concluding that the thesis of “The End of Cheap Oil” was correct, that there were no ready substitutes for crude oil, and that the consequences of a near-term global oil production peak would be profound.

Given the almost complete absence of mainstream media coverage of the subject, I spent several months assessing whether I should step into the breach and write a book on Peak Oil. The fact that I had no background in the oil industry or in any relevant academic field weighed against doing so. Yet the need was clearly overwhelming, so I decided to try. I spent 2001 and 2002 writing The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, which was published the following year and went on to sell over 50,000 copies with translations in six languages. I began receiving lecture invitations, and, over the next few years, gave over 300 talks to a wide variety of audiences in a dozen countries. More books followed: PowerDown: Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World (2004); The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse (2006); Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (2007); and Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (2009).

I was determined to sound a warning not just to the general public, but especially to politicians and appointed government officials. Members of a burgeoning informal global network of Peak Oil activists arranged for me speak to hundreds of national, state, and local politicians and appointed officials in the U.S., to about a hundred members of the European Parliament, and to national Parliamentarians in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand.

From Scary Theory to Scarier Reality

Then in 2008, the Peak Oil scenario became all too real. Global oil production had been stagnant since 2005 and petroleum prices had been soaring upward. In July, 2008, the per-barrel price shot up nearly to $150—half again higher (in inflation-adjusted terms) than the price spikes of the 1970s that had triggered the worst recession since World War II. By summer 2008, the auto industry, the trucking industry, international shipping, agriculture, and the airlines were all reeling.

But what happened next riveted the world’s attention to such a degree that the oil price spike was all but forgotten: in September 2008, the global financial system nearly collapsed. The reasons for this sudden, gripping crisis apparently had to do with housing bubbles, lack of proper regulation of the banking industry, and the over-use of bizarre financial products that almost nobody understood. However, there are reasons for concluding that the oil price spike was a much more important contributor to this economic meltdown than is generally discussed (see

In the aftermath of that global financial near-death experience, both the Peak Oil impact scenario proposed a decade earlier and the Limits to Growth standard-run scenario of 1972 seemed to be confirmed with uncanny and frightening accuracy. Global trade was falling. The world’s largest auto companies were on life support. The U.S. airline industry had shrunk by almost a third. Food riots were erupting in poor nations around the world. Lingering wars in Iraq (the nation with the world’s second-largest crude oil reserves) and Afghanistan (the site of disputed oil and gas pipeline projects) continued to bleed the coffers of the world’s foremost oil-importing nation.

Meanwhile, the debate about what to do to rein in global climate change exemplified the political inertia that had kept the world on track for calamity since the early ’70s. It had by now become obvious to nearly every person of modest education and intellect that the world has two urgent, incontrovertible reasons to rapidly end its reliance on fossil fuels: the twin threats of climate catastrophe and impending constraints to fuel supplies (with most of the remaining oil reserves located in just a few countries). Yet at the Copenhagen climate conference in December, 2009, the priorities of the most fuel-dependent nations were clear: carbon emissions should be cut, and fossil fuel dependency reduced, but only if doing so does not threaten economic growth.

The cruel irony, obvious to my Peak Oil-aware colleagues but apparently not to the delegates at Copenhagen, was that the decades-long era of rapid economic growth based on increased fossil-fueled production and consumption is over anyway. The world’s last chance to collectively, cooperatively negotiate a turn away from the precipice was being squandered for the sake of a goal that was no longer achievable.

I could take no satisfaction from these confirmations of the Limits to Growth and Peak Oil scenarios; being able to say “I told you so” hardly made up for the shock of knowing that our last opportunities to change direction had been missed and that the train of industrial civilization was now not merely still chugging toward a broken bridge, but was actually starting to plummet into the gorge below. We had succeeded somewhat in helping increase public awareness of an issue: due to the efforts of thousands of scientists, writers, and activists, “peak oil” had become a recognizable term in public discourse. But we had failed to budge government policy in more than very minor ways (I had, for example, assisted the City Council-appointed Peak Oil Task Force of Oakland, California, which produced a sensible report on which, so far, little action has been taken).

The world has entered a new era. The project of awakening and warning policy makers and the general public was worthy of the investment of all the effort we could muster. In fact, it would have been negligent of the Limits to Growth authors, Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrère, and thousands of climate and environmental scientists and activists (myself included) not to give it our best shot. But it is now too late to avert a collapse of the existing system. The collapse has begun.

It is time for a different strategy.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that we should all simply give up and accept an inevitable, awful fate. Even though the collapse of the world’s financial and industrial systems has started, effort now at minimizing further dire consequences is essential. Collapse does not mean extinction. A new way of life will almost certainly emerge from the wreckage of the fossil-fueled growth era. It is up to those of us who have some understanding of what is happening, and why, to help design that new way of life so that it will be sustainable, equitable, and fulfilling for all concerned. We all need practical strategies and tools to weather the collapse and to build the foundation of whatever is to come after.

Journey to a New Economy

The propositions described above, and my personal journey, are the starting points for a search that can be summarized in a single question: What are the guideposts toward a livable, inviting post-growth society?

This search has in many instances entailed a literal, geographic journey. During the past few years, as I traveled the lecture circuit, I met thousands of people who had already concluded on their own that the global stage was being set for an economic crash of epic proportions. They had passed through the psychological stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They were thinking creatively, building new lives, and experimenting with a wide range of strategies for meeting basic human needs while using much less of just about everything.

Some of these folks, like me, had been thinking along these lines for a long time—since the 1970s. Many were much younger, though, had learned about Peak Oil or climate change just within the past few years, and had recently decided to devote their lives to building a post-hydrocarbon world. Some were clearly members of what was known in the 1970s as the “counterculture.” Others were mainstream citizens—investment bankers, real estate sellers, high school teachers, small business owners, corporate middle managers—who had chanced upon information that awakened them forcibly from their routines. Many of these folks lived in large cities, but others in small towns or on farms; some were rich, some poor (a few by choice); some were devout, others agnostic or atheist; some were working alone on survivalist projects, while others were building community organizations; some saw the transition as a business opportunity while others were working through non-profit organizations. Here are just three examples that stand out.

In 2005, while on a lecture tour in Ireland, I met a young college teacher named Rob Hopkins who believed that life could be better without fossil fuels. He had led his students in developing an “Energy Descent Action Plan” for their town, and believed he had the seed for something larger and more significant. He soon moved back to his native England to earn his Ph.D., and designed his thesis project around helping the village of Totnes begin a cooperative, phased process of transitioning away from its dependence on fossil fuels. This project in turn led to the start of a series of Transition Initiatives in villages, towns, and neighborhoods throughout the U.K. In 2007, a version of Rob’s written Ph.D. thesis was published as a book (The Transition Handbook) that quickly began inspiring others to take up this strategy. Today there are hundreds of Transition Initiatives at various stages of development in a dozen countries (including over 50 in the U.S.).

While in Montana for a speaking engagement at the University of Montana in Helena in spring 2009, some local Peak Oil activists drove me to the town of Ronan and introduced me to Billie Lee, who had helped start Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center. The Center is housed in a fairly small, non-descript building and features medium-scale food processing equipment that local small food producers can rent at reasonable rates. This enables small farmers to produce value-added products (everything from canned soups to herbal tea bags) that are profitable and are price-competitive with those made by industrial food companies located hundreds or thousands of miles from Ronan. Local food has become an obsession for the sustainability-minded during the past few years, and local food systems will be a necessary pillar of post-growth economies. Yet aspiring small-scale farmers often have a hard time getting started because they cannot afford the equipment to enable them to produce profitable value-added products. Here in the tiny hamlet of Ronan was an ingenious solution to the problem, and one that deserves to be replicated in every agricultural county in the nation.

On a trip to New England in 2007, I met Lynn Benander, a community energy activist and entrepreneur who had started a project called Co-op Power to bring renewable energy to low-income and multi-ethnic communities throughout the Northeast. Typically, renewable energy projects cost more to get going than conventional coal or gas power projects, and so they tend to be found in wealthier communities and regions. Conversely, the most polluting energy projects tend to be sited in or near poor neighborhoods or regions. Co-op Power aims to change that imbalance of power—in a way that any community can copy. A typical project: You help four people put up a solar hot water system and everyone comes to help you put up yours; you save 40 to 50 percent off your total system price, get to know your neighbors, and learn how your system works. Co-op Power had also pioneered a cooperative financing method that cuts through the usual roadblocks to renewable energy projects in poorer neighborhoods by leveraging member equity.

Individually, these initiatives and projects may seem to be on too small a scale to make much of a difference. But multiplied by thousands, with examples in nearly every community, they represent a quiet yet powerful movement.

Few of these efforts have gained national media attention. Most media commentators who address economic issues are focused on the prospects—positive or negative—of the existing growth-based economy. These projects don’t seem all that important within that framework of thinking. But in the new context of the no-growth economy, they may mean the difference between ruinous poverty and happy sufficiency.

The trends are already in evidence: as the financial crisis worsens, more people are planting gardens, and seed companies are working hard to keep up with the demand. More young people are taking up farming now than in any recent decade. In 2008, more bicycles were sold in the U.S. than automobiles (not good news for the struggling car companies, but great news for the climate). And since the crisis started, Americans have been spending much less on non-essentials—repairing and re-using rather than replacing and adding.

Many economists assume these trends are short-term and that Americans will return to consumerism as economic crisis shifts into recovery. But if there is no “recovery” in the usual sense, then these trends will only grow.

This is what the early adopters are assuming. They believe that the nation and the world have turned a corner. They understand something the media either ignore or deny. They’re betting on a future of local food systems, not global agribusiness; of community credit co-ops rather than too-big-to-fail Wall Street megabanks; of small-scale renewable energy projects, not a world-spanning system of fossil-fuel extraction, trade, and consumption. A future in which we do for ourselves, share, and cooperate.

They’re embarking on a life after growth.

* * *

The realization that growth is at an end raises many questions. Will the financial impact be inflationary or deflationary? Will some nations fare better than others, leading to protectionist trade wars? Will the “down-sizing” of social and economic complexity lead also to a substantial die-off of the human species? How quickly will all of this happen?

There simply are no hard and fast answers to such questions. The financial, energy, food, transport, and political systems on which we rely are complex, so it is almost impossible to reliably model their response to a shock such as a resource limits-imposed end to economic growth. The only reasonable response, it seems to me, is to act as if survival is possible, and to build resilience throughout society as quickly as can be, acting locally wherever there are individuals or groups with the understanding and wherewithal. We must assume that a satisfactory, sustainable way of life is achievable in the absence of fossil fuels and conventional economic growth, and go about building it. This will be the focus of my work from now on—and it is likely to be the work of the next few generations as well. Call it Transition, call it cultural survival and renewal, call it what you will, it is the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

* A recent study by Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) concluded, “[Our] analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features of [the Limits to Growth] business-as-usual scenario….”

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Goldilocks and the Three Fuels:

A Cautionary Tale of Resource Depletion
(published by Reuters, Feb. 18, 2010)

Where are oil prices headed in 2010? Forecasts for the end of the year are all over the map, from over $100 a barrel to under $50. The difference hinges mostly on assumptions about whether the economy will recover or relapse. But it may be that price volatility has become an inherent feature of the oil market—and fossil fuel markets in general—for reasons that can perhaps best be explained with the help of a little history and an old children’s story.

Once upon a time (about a dozen years past), oil sold for $12 a barrel and a lot of people thought it would get even cheaper because the market was glutted. But instead the price rose: many big oilfields were aging and yielding less, and it was getting harder to find new ones—especially in places easy and cheap to drill. So the glut eroded and petroleum prices rose. Seeing a perfect opportunity (a necessary commodity with stagnating supply and growing demand), speculators drove the price up even further.

As prices lofted, oil companies and private investors also saw opportunity and started funding expensive projects to explore for oil in remote and inconvenient places, or to make synthetic liquid fuels out of lower-grade carbon materials like bitumen, coal, or kerogen.

But then in 2008, as the price of a barrel of oil reached its all-time high of $147, the economy crashed. Airlines and trucking companies downsized, motorists stayed home, and demand for oil plummeted. So did the price, bottoming out at $32 at the end of 2008.

But with prices so low, investments in hard-to-find oil and hard-to-make substitutes began to look tenuous, so tens of billions of dollars’ worth of projects got canceled. Yet the industry had been counting on those projects to maintain a steady stream of liquid fuels a few years out, so worries about a future supply crunch began to make headlines.

By mid-2009 the oil price had settled within a Goldilocks range—not too high (so as to kill the economy and, with it, fuel demand), and not too low (so as to scare away investment in future energy projects and thus reduce supply). That just-right price band appeared to be between $60 and $80 a barrel.

How long prices can stay in the Goldilocks range is anybody’s guess, but production declines in the world’s old super-giant oilfields continue to accelerate and exploration costs continue to mount, which means that the lower boundary of that just-right range will inevitably continue to migrate upward. Meanwhile the world economy remains frail, so that even $80 oil could strain the recovery.

When discussing the increasing perils of the current oil supply-demand-price balancing act, some commentators opine that the world supply of oil has peaked; others say it is demand that has peaked. It is a distinction without a difference.

There are similarities with U.S. natural gas. Recent shale gas projects have yielded significant quantities of fuel, and reserves of the stuff are enormous. But drilling costs and per-well decline rates are high, so producers can make a profit only if gas prices are toward the upper end of their historic range.

Nearly everyone believes that U.S. coal supplies are virtually endless, but the Goldilocks syndrome is coming into play there, too. Coal prices just about doubled in the two years leading up to the economic crash of 2008, and high-quality coals from the eastern region of the country are depleting fast.

We will never run out of coal, oil, or natural gas—in the absolute sense. The Industrial Revolution started in British coalfields, and there is still an enormous amount of coal in Britain; but the coal that’s left there is prohibitively expensive to mine, so that nation’s coal industry is virtually gone. Goldilocks grew dissatisfied with her options, got up, and left. The same has been gradually transpiring in the U.S. oil patch over the past four decades, and the same will happen wherever useful non-renewable resources are found.

Economic theory says the Market will always find a substitute for whatever resource is depleting to the point of scarcity. When it comes to fuels, the substitutes are alternatives to coal, oil, and gas—primarily, renewables like wind and solar. Investing in them should be a no-brainer. But, during the Goldilocks interval, increasing price volatility for oil, gas, and coal can make all energy investments dicey. That means that, as a society, our main strategy for navigating the energy transition will almost certainly have to be conservation.

The lesson of the parable: If you’re an investor, beware—oil prices are going to be increasingly hard to predict over the longer term. And if you make energy policy, don’t get any more hooked on non-renewable resources than you already are. If you do, you’ll eventually be spending much of your time chasing fickle Goldilocks—and in the end, she’s a bear.

#211: Is “Clean Coal” a Dead End?

MuseLetter #211 / December 2009 by Richard Heinberg

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 109 KB)

1. Is "Clean Coal" a Dead End?
Note: this article is being featured in the first issue of the new magazine Solutions.

Many energy experts, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and representatives of the coal industry agree on the need to spend billions to develop technologies to capture and store the carbon from burning coal, thus making coal "clean" from a climate standpoint. President Obama has repeatedly endorsed the development of "clean coal," and in July Department of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu announced that $1 billion of stimulus package funds would go toward re-launching FutureGen, a stalled project intended to show how carbon dioxide can be captured on a large scale from coal-fired power plants. The Waxman-Markey climate bill earmarks another $60 billion for "clean coal" research and development.

The "clean coal" argument runs like this: America is brimming with cheap coal, which provides almost half our electricity and is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels. The nation will need an enormous amount of energy over the next few decades, but renewable sources just aren’t ready to provide all—or even the bulk—of that energy. Meanwhile, preventing catastrophic climate change requires that we stop venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is possible to capture and store the CO2 that would otherwise be emitted from burning coal, and elements of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology are already in use on a small scale. Put all of these factors together and the case for government funding of research and development of "clean coal" seems strong.

However, several recent studies of US coal supplies suggest that much that we think we know about coal is wrong. If these studies are correct, the argument for investing in "clean coal" becomes tenuous on economic grounds alone. These studies call into question the one "fact" that both pro-coal and anti-coal lobbies have taken for granted: that the US has a virtually limitless supply of cheap coal.

How much coal?

Doubts were first raised in a book-length 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled "Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy" (1), which noted that "Present estimates of coal reserves are based upon methods that have not been reviewed or revised since — 1974," and concluded that a newer and better assessment "may substantially reduce the number of years’ supply."

Also in 2007, an energy analytics organization founded by a member of the German Parliament, Energy Watch Group (2), released a study of US and world coal supplies concluding that global coal production will reach a peak and begin to decline sometime around 2025, and that US coal production will peak only slightly later—perhaps by 2030 or 2035.

Last December the USGS issued a report (3) on the nation’s largest and most productive coalfield, in Wyoming, finding that, at current prices, only about six percent of the coal can be profitably mined; if coal prices soared, then more of the coal would be recoverable—but then coal wouldn’t be economically competitive with other energy sources.

On what do these studies base their pessimistic assessments of coal’s future?

America’s coal resources are indeed vast—none of the studies claims otherwise. However, during the past century, coal reserves (the portion of total coal resources that can be mined profitably with existing technologies) shrank much faster than could be accounted for by the depletion of those resources through mining. That is because geologists are doing a better job now of taking into account "restrictions" that make most coal impractical to mine—factors having to do with location, depth, seam thickness, and coal quality. In recent years, some nations have reduced their booked coal reserves by 90 percent or more on the basis of new, more realistic surveys. The National Academy of Sciences report mentioned above is essentially a plea for an updated US national survey, and it offers abundant reasons for thinking that such a survey would almost certainly reveal a much smaller reserve base than the one on which current supply forecasts are founded.

Moreover, when it comes to forecasting future coal supplies the official agencies seem to have been asking the wrong question, namely, "When will the nation run out of coal?" The customary answer is, "Not for a couple of hundred years or more"—which is a sufficiently long period for current energy planning. But more relevant questions are, "When will it no longer be possible to increase the rate at which coal is being extracted?", and "When will coal cease to be an economically competitive energy source?" These are addressed in the Energy Watch Group study, which reasons that, long before the nation runs out of coal, production will peak and start to decline due to the depletion of easily accessible, high-quality deposits. Already some of America’s most important coal regions are long past their glory days, and recent field surveys by the USGS (including the one cited above) suggest that the capacities of even the most abundant coalfields in the nation have been over-estimated.

No cheap coal, no "clean coal"

How would the prospect for "peak coal" sometime in the next two or three decades impact the debate over the development of carbon capture and storage? As we are about to see, the enormous investments that will be required to make coal "clean" only make sense if coal continues to be abundant and cheap.

The basic elements of carbon capture and storage technology already exist. Capturing carbon is relatively easy in coal gasification (IGCC) power plants, and such plants have been shown to be technically feasible. In such plants, coal, air, and water are brought together under high pressure and temperature, yielding "syngas," a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen (along with solid waste byproducts); the hydrogen can be burned to turn a turbine to produce electricity, while the carbon monoxide is transformed into carbon dioxide—which can then potentially be piped to an underground sequestration site for permanent storage. IGCC power plants are efficient, using about a third less coal to produce a similar amount of electricity, and can also capture other pollutants from coal. However, nearly all existing US coal power plants are of an older, simpler type in which coal is burned directly, so replacing these with expensive-to-build plants in which the coal is first gasified will itself require enormous investment and decades of work.

We also know how to store carbon: the petroleum services industry routinely injects CO2 into old oil wells to make it easier to extract the remaining crude. But the quantities of carbon dioxide sequestered this way are trivial when compared with the amounts spewed from coal-burning power plants annually. Gathering and storing two or three billion tons of carbon each year from hundreds of geographically scattered coal power plants will require the construction of an enormous system of pipelines, compressors, and pumps. A 2007 MIT study, "The Future of Coal" (4), found that if just 60 percent of the CO2 from US coal-fired power plants were to be captured and compressed to a liquid, its daily volume would equal the amount of oil Americans consume each day (about 20 million barrels). The study also concluded that a huge increase in investment in industrial-scale demonstration plants would be required now even to know in 10 or 15 years if the technology can work at a meaningful scale. All of this underscores the basic fact that carbon capture and storage is going to be very expensive—if it is even possible to accomplish on the scale that is being proposed.

Yet there is a subtler but possibly even more decisive price tag for "clean coal": the energy cost. According to the most recent estimate (from Harvard University’s Belfer Center (5), at least 30 percent of the energy produced by burning coal will be needed to run the system for capturing, compressing, pumping, and burying CO2. Therefore any efficiency benefit from gasifying coal at IGCC power plants would be canceled out.

But already the average quality of coal being mined is declining—that is, we get less energy for each ton of coal burned today than we did ten years ago. This is a natural consequence of the "low-hanging-fruit" principle of resource extraction, in which we tend to consume the highest-quality, most easily accessed resources first.

So as time goes on, the US will need to burn more coal, while the coal itself will be more scarce and costly. And the technology used will be far more expensive and complex, both to build and to operate, than the system of power plants we have today. Taken together, these factors read like a recipe for cost overruns and spiraling electricity rates.

How high could coal-based electricity prices go? During the period from 2006 to 2008, prices for some grades of US coal doubled. This year the economic crisis has lowered demand for electricity and thus for coal, and so prices have softened. However, recent experience shows that, even in the absence of serious shortages, coal prices are increasingly subject to dramatic swings. Thus, taking higher coal prices into account, it is reasonable to assume coal-based electricity costs two to five times current rates by 2030. The current average generation cost of coal electricity is from 2 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour; compare that to the current average cost for wind electricity of 3.5 to 7 cents per kWh (not counting tax credits), or about 12 cents per kWh for solar thermal electricity, or 25 cents per kWh for solar photovoltaic electricity, and the vulnerability of coal’s economic dominance becomes apparent.

Imagine a scenario in which the US goes ahead with the attempt to develop "clean coal" technologies. During the coming decade tens of billions of dollars (mostly from government) would likely need to be invested in research and the construction of demonstration projects. By 2020, the price of coal will already have begun to rise, as supply problems multiply, yet "clean coal" technology won’t be ready to deploy widely (the most ambitious proposals don’t see that happening until after 2025). Even if renewable energy doesn’t get cheaper due to technological advances (and most analysts assume it will), at some point along this timeline the "clean coal" bandwagon will almost certainly grind to a stop because it is simply too expensive to keep going.

What, then, are our options?

The most likely course for the Obama Administration and Congress is to continue developing "clean coal" based on current market conditions, and to change course only as market conditions evolve. The problem with doing so is that large infrastructure investments require long-range planning, and the success of those investments depends upon an accurate forecast of future resource prices and demand for product. Decisions made now on the basis of assumptions about future coal prices that are wildly wrong could waste enormous sums of money and foreclose opportunities to invest in ways that would leave society much better off two or three decades from now.

Some environmental organizations, such as National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), argue that the nation will almost certainly continue burning coal in any case, and since we cannot allow the resulting carbon dioxide to exacerbate climate change, "clean coal" technology is worth the investment.

But what sort of energy policy could force "clean coal" into existence? Government could legislate that all new coal power plants must capture and store carbon. But then, for reasons already explained, few new plants would probably get built—other than demonstration sites operating with public subsidies—and the nation would be stuck with its old, inefficient, and highly polluting coal plants. Alternatively, the government could mandate that, after a certain date, all coal power plants must capture and store carbon dioxide. Yet what would happen in the overwhelmingly likely event that the specified date arrived and most coal plants simply weren’t ready? Would regulators shut down non-compliant plants, reducing the nation’s electricity supply by a substantial percentage? Or would the utility operators face stiff fines—which they would quickly pass along to consumers in the form of higher rates? Or would the government simply push the date for compliance back — and back — and back?

Meanwhile, leading climate scientists are warning that we need to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere below current levels; how high will CO2 levels rise while we wait for "clean coal" technology to come online?

It might also be argued that partial deployment of carbon capture and storage technology would be better than nothing—at least some carbon emissions would be avoided. However, there is a problem there, too. The research and development costs for limited implementation are likely to be almost as high as for universal deployment (since the technology has to be made to work on a small scale before it can be built out on a large scale). This would represent an enormous investment in an energy source and a technology with a limited future. And that investment will be needed elsewhere.

Coal gasification plants without carbon capture would be less polluting and more efficient than current power plants, but, once again, the up-front costs are very high (and this is why several potential IGCC projects have been canceled or rejected in recent years).

The ongoing, relentless depletion of our nation’s—and the world’s—coal, oil, and natural gas resources will force us to depend increasingly upon renewable energy. By the end of this century, America will have an essentially all-renewable economy, whether or not we have planned for it. Over the short term, more electricity could come from natural gas, but it is unclear how long the current gas glut will last, given that the new, unconventional sources responsible for it (especially shale gas) are proving expensive to develop and quick to deplete. Building new nuclear plants will be costly and slow—and controversial. And uranium is itself a depleting, non-renewable resource.

But renewable energy sources are not without problems of their own. Their current share of total energy produced is relatively tiny, and a rapid build-up of capacity will require subsidies of some kind. Also, wind and solar power are intermittent, and the times of greatest abundance of sunshine and breeze do not always coincide with times of greatest electricity demand. This is a problem that can probably be solved, but not without an enormous upgrade to the nation’s electricity grid. Still other investments in national transport, food-system, and housing infrastructure will be needed to get us to a low-consuming, renewable energy future.

Altogether, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the years ahead are likely to see increasingly expensive electricity, if not actual shortages. By mid-century, renewables must be ready to provide a substantial majority of energy consumed, or energy shortages could be rampant. An even faster transition will be needed if the nation’s goal is (as it should be) to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, as climate scientist James Hansen says is necessary (currently, we’re at 387 ppm, and rising by over 2 ppm per year).

Given a depleting resource base and the likelihood of soaring coal prices, the "clean coal" debate hinges on the question, Can we afford to do it all? That is, can we spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars mitigating the impacts from burning increasingly expensive, depleting coal using expensive coal gasification power plants and unproven carbon capture and storage technologies, while at the same time spending hundreds of billions to develop an entirely different energy infrastructure that we will eventually be forced to rely upon as coal runs out? It would be nice to think so, but the harsh reality is that time and capital are both limited.

Abandoning "clean coal" need not be seen as a retreat in the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. As a nation, we could simply halt the construction of new coal power plants. We could tax carbon. We could cap carbon emissions and ration or sell emissions permits. We could discourage coal mining by enforcing reasonable environmental regulations. None of these strategies would require substantial new investments by the government, just tough policy decisions.

There are other strong arguments against "clean coal." The mining of coal results in environmental, social, and economic ruin for communities in coal regions—witness the travesty of "mountaintop removal" mining practices in Appalachia. Capturing and storing the carbon from coal would do nothing to address that concern. Also, some doubt whether the carbon dioxide that is sequestered underground will really stay there.

While these arguments may be valid, they are unlikely to be decisive in the "clean coal" debate. That debate will be won or lost on the hard, practical basis of cost. And on that basis, the case for "clean coal" may have just fallen apart.

Tough energy choices

What would be a sound energy policy from both an energy supply and a climate standpoint? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Given the need for rapid reduction in the use of carbon fuels and the expense of building renewable energy infrastructure, energy conservation will almost certainly have to be the basis of our national strategy. This means finding ways to do more with less through increased energy efficiency—but it also means identifying and simply curtailing non-essential current energy consumption. Our climate and energy problems would become much easier to solve if America were to go on an energy diet so that it required only half, a third, or even a quarter of the energy it currently uses. Such demand reductions are certainly possible, but they would require fundamental changes in citizens’ habits and expectations, as well as massive investments in efficient technologies—from household gadgets to power plants and transport systems.

Investment will also be required in renewable energy sources, many of which are not currently cost-competitive with fossil fuels. If we wait for market signals to change so that alternative energy is cheaper in every instance (either because fossil fuels have depleted or renewable technology has advanced), we will have waited too long. It will take decades to fully replace the energy systems that power our society. Unless we begin now, the lights may begin to go out in a couple of decades—at about the same time we may be facing climate catastrophe.

All we have to do to realize that horrific future is to continue doing what we are doing now.


1. Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy
2. Coal: Resources and Future Production
3. Assessment of Coal Geology, Resources, and Reserves in the Gillette Coalfield, Powder River Basin, Wyoming
4. The Future of Coal
5. Making Carbon Capture and Storage Work

This article is based on my book ‘Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis’ (New Society Publishers).

2. Just Tell Us the Truth

At last we know…sort of. An article in the UK newspaper The Guardian for November 9, titled “Key Oil Figures Were Distorted by US Pressure, Says Whistleblower,” reveals what hundreds of analysts have been trying to convey to world leaders for years: The global oil supply situation is critical and getting worse, and vested interests are playing key roles in covering up this devastatingly inconvenient truth.

Over a decade ago, when I began following the Peak Oil story, the main sources were a few highly-placed petroleum geologists with experience in oilfields around the globe. At that time, these brave scientists were saying that world oil production would peak sometime around 2010, and that the global economy would be hammered as a result. Since it will take decades to develop alternative energy sources to replace petroleum (if adequate replacements are even available), the consequences for transport, trade, and agriculture will be almost too awful to contemplate.

In the past few years these lone voices of warning have garnered the backing of a million-voice chorus: investment banks, oil analytics firms, and investigative journalists have joined the geologists in pointing out that oil production limits are within sight, and in calling for more transparency in official data reporting and forecasting.

But the International Energy Agency has stubbornly refused to come clean. And this is important: while financial analysts and investors are free to draw their own conclusions about Peak Oil (and a great many of them have seen the writing on the wall—hence recent run-ups in oil futures prices), national and local governments must rely on officially sanctioned fuel supply and price projections for all their planning. Energy policy, transport planning, agriculture policy, economic forecasting, and much more depend upon the august pronouncements of the Paris-based IEA.

There are always folks who are glad to tell us what we want to hear. Indeed, the presentation of plausible excuses for the denial of serious problems offers an attractive career track. Prominent oil optimists like Daniel Yergin and Michael C. Lynch find open doors at the New York Times and other major media outlets, and wealthy clients for their consulting services, because they reassure markets that all will be well.

Nevertheless, denial leads to complacency, not problem-solving. And the end of cheap, abundant oil is a problem that could cripple the global economy not just for another year or two, but more or less permanently.

This is not to say that the recently released IEA “World Energy Outlook 2009” is worthless: the current iteration of the agency’s annual report makes many excellent points (for example, that “Falling energy investment [resulting from the worldwide financial crisis] will have far-reaching consequences”). But, as the whistleblower quoted in the recent Guardian article notes, agency forecasts for future world oil production are still profoundly unrealistic:

Many inside the organisation believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90 [million] to 95m barrels a day would be impossible but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. And the Americans fear the end of oil supremacy because it would threaten their power over access to oil resources.

Sooner or later, we must face reality. If we do it sooner, our chances of adapting successfully are far better than if we wait and deny just a little longer.

On one hand, careers are at stake if IEA officials step forward and tell us the truth. On the other hand, the global economy is as risk if they don’t.

There is evidently a quiet battle raging within the agency, and within the consciences of many of its officials. So far, we are all the losers in that battle.

#210/Dilemma & Denial; ASPO 2009 Address

MuseLetter # 210 / November 2009 by Richard Heinberg

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 122 KB)

1. Dilemma & Denial

A couple of weeks ago Jerry Mander and I were discussing the best word to use in the heading for the back cover copy of a new short book being co-published by International Forum on Globalization and Post Carbon Institute, Searching for a Miracle: "Net Energy" and the Fate of Industrial Societies (I wrote the main text, Jerry wrote the Foreword). Jerry liked the word "conundrum," while I argued for "dilemma." We were in basic agreement, though, about a word we didn’t want: "problem." Problems can be solved; humanity’s energy and environmental crises will not be "solved," in the sense that there is no realistic strategy that will enable us to continue, as we have for the past few decades, to enjoy continuous growth in population and in consumption of resources and use of energy. If we are to survive, we will have to accept profound and fundamental changes to our economies and lifestyles.

The word dilemma characterizes a situation in which one must choose between two disagreeable options. This is a good description of the human condition in the early 21st century. Had our species foreseen and begun to adapt to resource limits back in the 1950s or even the ’70s, the transition to non-growing, sustainable levels of population and consumption might have been fairly painless. But now there really are no easy paths from here to a workable future.

This is not how we would like things to be. We want problems with solutions.

Problem: climate change. Solution: renewable energy.
Problem: poverty. Solution: more economic growth (a rising tide will lift all boats, we are told).
Problem: slow economic growth. Solution: more cheap energy (i.e., coal).

As should already be evident, the "problem" mindset can be maintained, in the current instance, only by narrowing our focus to just one variable. As soon as we begin to take multiple variables into account—population, economic instability and inequality, climate change, resource depletion, limits to capital investment—it quickly becomes apparent that some "solutions" just exacerbate other "problems."

So it’s powerfully tempting just to ignore some of the limitations and trade-offs we face. Many environmentalists, viewing the human predicament almost solely through the lens of climate change, see our choice as follows:

  • Dead planet and dead fossil-fueled economy
  • vs. living planet and thriving renewables-based economy.

Framed this way, the correct choice is obvious. But economists who see continued growth as the key to ending poverty, and who understand that the build-out of renewable energy sources is currently constrained by practical limits, might frame our choice this way:

  • Dead energy-constrained economy incapable of solving its problems
  • vs. thriving, problem-solving economy weaning itself from fossil fuels only as quickly as alternative energy sources are capable of picking up the slack.

Well, when you put it that way . . . naturally, option two looks better.
But in both cases the preferable second option is unrealistic, because factors that have been omitted from the framing of the problem preclude that option’s realization.

A more comprehensive statement of our choice might be this:

  • Dead planet and dead economy (if insufficient effort is mustered toward reducing carbon emissions, population, and consumption)
  • vs. crippled planet (so much climate change, and so many species extinctions are already in the pipeline and cannot now be averted, that a healthy planet is just no longer a real possibility, for at least the next many decades) and sharply downsized economy (if we do reduce carbon emissions, population, and consumption, that will constitute a form of economic contraction that will mean the end of prosperity as we have come to think of it).

That, friends, is a dilemma. Yes, the second option is still mightily preferable, as it is our only realistic survival option; but it’s a very tough sell for policy makers at every level, and for the general public as well. Ugh. Let’s pretend there’s a third option. It’s far more palatable simply to ignore a few factors, assume we have only a "problem," and then set out to "solve" it.

Now, it is true that within our overall dilemma there exist many problems (the relatively high cost of commercial solar panels is a problem that probably can be addressed with further research, as is bird and bat mortality from wind turbines). But we shouldn’t let the existence of these "trees" distract us from the necessity of dealing with the "forest" in which they grow.

In effect, discounting limiting factors (ignoring the "forest" while focusing only on one or two "trees") constitutes by far the most popular and acceptable form of denial. Very few people would actually deny the notion that there is something wrong in the world, but framing the situation as a problem rather than a dilemma enables us to avoid harsh reality while appearing not to do so. Indeed, the energetic pursuit of problem solving enables one to strike a heroic pose.

Science and Politics

Denial can sometimes take blatant and irrational forms—especially here in the politically polarized and increasingly bonkers U.S. of A. Here’s a recent example (caution: rant ahead!).

A few days ago my wife Janet and I attended a talk by author Bill McKibben here in Santa Rosa. Bill has been on a more-or-less perpetual lecture tour for the past few months promoting his ad-hoc organization, which is mounting a world-wide effort to persuade the international community to adopt 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 as its official target in emissions reduction efforts. The number comes from analyses by climate scientist James Hansen of NASA, who has concluded that this is the highest number that will enable us to continue to enjoy "a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed."

Bill’s lecture was informative and compelling, and Janet and I came away inspired to take the message into our community however we can.

The next day Janet happened to be volunteering as a Master Gardener. For those who don’t know, the Master Gardener program is a Cooperative Extension program of the University of California system, offering free science-based advice to the general public on nearly all aspects of home gardening. Janet mentioned to a female senior volunteer that it might be good for the program to give more attention to promoting ways that gardeners can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The woman replied that Master Gardeners aren’t allowed to engage in "political" activities while acting in their official capacity, and that anthropogenic climate change is "politics" rather than science; she then went on to make a few comments about how some parts of the world are actually cooling, and how scientists disagree on what’s really going on.

Janet was dumbfounded (as was I when she related the story to me). Yet the senior Master Gardener’s attitude reflects the majority opinion in the U.S., according to many polls. Janet immediately emailed her a few choice articles from—a website run by climate scientists. Of course, in reality the situation is nearly the opposite of "climate change is politics": indeed, the scientific consensus that humans’ combustion of fossil fuels is driving the great majority of observed climate change is overwhelming. Even Jim Hansen’s suggestion that 350 ppm must be the highest permissible number for atmospheric CO2 concentrations if we want to avert catastrophic impacts is entirely science-based, and the evidence and reasoning behind the number were published in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, it is the well-funded effort to doubt and question climate science that is political—an example of denial that happens to suit the purposes of the fossil fuel industry and its friends on the political right.

Yes, I know: there is politics in science too (for examples, read Thomas Kuhn’s classic 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Scientists do sometimes let herd instincts overwhelm critical thinking abilities. And absolute certainty regarding the degree of anthropogenic contribution to climate change is impossible to achieve: we can’t run repeated controlled experiments with the entire planet, changing one variable at a time. But the accumulating evidence that the bulk of observed climate instability is due to human action is overwhelmingly persuasive—and the vast majority of scientists accept it as such. As far as I have been able to tell, the objections of skeptics have been satisfactorily addressed. Spend an hour or so at, then spend an equivalent amount of time exploring a representative climate skeptic website (for example,, then go back and forth matching assertions with evidence. Which one smells more like science, which more like polemics?

Come on, people. Surely as a society we can get beyond this "debate." If we don’t do so soon, it will be too late in the gravest possible sense of that phrase. (End of rant.)

Dilemma Adaptation

The hard fact is, denial is part of our human repertoire of responses. It’s adaptive, up to a point. We all want and need to avoid pitfalls, but doing so takes effort, so we need some sort of filter to help us sort real threats from spurious or inconsequential ones. Denial is also an understandable response to information that is so profoundly unsettling that it would be psychologically damaging to us if we were to deal with it head on. But what’s adaptive in one situation can be fatal in another.

I’m thinking a lot about adaptation these days as I read Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. The book is a summary of recent evidence from the science of genetics about human origins and evolution—subjects that in the past have been largely the province of archaeology and anthropology.

The new genetic evidence suggests that human beings have continued to evolve right up to the present. Much of that evolution has occurred at the level of culture. But even within the past few centuries, new gene sequences have appeared in parts of the human population. Indeed, Wade suggests that cultural and biological evolution are now proceeding together: for example, genes that tend to make us more peaceful, social, and cooperative are being selected for, because those are characteristics that help us get along in densely populated urban societies.

These recent findings and the speculation surrounding them somewhat undercut ideas advanced in recent years by evolutionary psychologists, who have proceeded under the assumption that we modern humans still have the minds of Paleolithic hunters. The genetic evidence suggests instead that our brains, digestive systems, and immune systems are all subtly adapting to our altered environments.

The news that we humans can adapt rapidly, not only culturally but even physiologically, is certainly welcome: we need to change dramatically if we are to survive. But just how rapidly can we adapt? Can we, crucially, overcome our tendency toward denial before we’ve pushed the climate too far?

Characteristics are selected for when they permit an organism to leave more offspring. If we persist in denial, we may leave no surviving offspring, or very few. We’ve reached a point, or encountered a situation, where denial is not adaptive. We’re on the horns of history’s greatest dilemma, and only by accepting the options actually available, and pursuing the less-awful option with creativity and compassion, will we stand a chance.

There’s no guarantee that we will. Many societies have failed to adapt. Maybe we will too. But on the other hand, perhaps the very act of discussing our dilemma in frank terms shows that, somewhere among our species, denial is being overcome and adaptation is trying to happen.

2. Address to the ASPO International Conference 2009 (Denver, Colorado)

I’m happy to have the opportunity to spend the next few minutes sharing some personal thoughts on the subjects that bring us together for this excellent event—thoughts based on my experience, during the past few years, of trying to get the message of Peak Oil out to an ever-wider audience.

First, I should mention that I didn’t come to this subject out of any interest in oil per se. I have no background in the oil industry or journalism either; indeed, I can’t claim to be anything more than an incorrigibly persistent independent writer on environmental subjects. But back in the early 1970s I was powerfully impacted by the Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome, and, like many thousands of others, began to see the path of our growth-based industrial society as inherently unsustainable and wrong-headed. As you will recall, in the “standard run” reference scenario of that report, industrial activity stalls out sometime in the first couple of decades of the 21st century, and food production and population then go into decline.

We were, it was suddenly evident, headed toward a cliff—but at that time the cliff was still somewhere just over the horizon.

In 1998, I read Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere’s crucial article in Scientific American, titled “The End of Cheap Oil.” The article stuck with me like a mind worm. I quickly realized that oil depletion was likely to be the limiting factor or trigger that would shift the world system from growth to contraction or collapse, a process that would continue until the human economy could once again fit within the constraints of the planet’s renewable productive capacities, by then severely reduced by resource depletion, soil erosion, and environmental pollution. Further, these two petroleum geologists were forecasting the peaking of oil production for a fairly proximate date: around 2010—just over a decade hence.

Back in the last years of the 1990s, most of the discussion about Peak Oil seemed to be taking place in the EnergyResources Yahoo discussion group (which continues to this day with moderator Tom Robertson), and “Brainfood,” an occasional email posting from Jay Hanson, who would later go on to create the website. I devoured these materials and found myself spending hours a day absorbing information about energy history, the oil industry, and oil geopolitics.

By 2003, I had published my first book on the subject, The Party’s Over. It was well received, eventually selling over 50,000 copies in North America, with translations in six languages, and I quickly found myself in demand as a speaker. In the years since, I have given between 300 and 400 lectures on Peak oil to audiences ranging from organic farmers to representatives of the packaging industry; from peace activists to insurance executives to high school students to earth-moving equipment manufacturers.

More books followed, along with interviews with Time magazine, Good Morning America, NPR, BBC, al Jazeera, the History Channel, and on and on.

All of this may sound like quite an accomplishment for an otherwise uncredentialed, introverted word geek, yet I assure you that on the ladder of public recognition, Richard Heinberg continues to occupy a very low and obscure rung—which is actually just fine by me, as the point of all this effort is not to acquire fame (which I assure you, from my limited exposure to it, is largely a nuisance), but simply to get the word out. And other more capable individuals are probably going to have to gain far more media prominence than I have in order to accomplish that.

The experiences of those years, with frequent travel and contact with a wide variety of audiences, lead me now to reflect on what has worked in getting the Peak Oil warning across, and what hasn’t. Certainly I think all of us would agree that high oil prices create a window of opportunity, a teachable moment, while low prices and news of big new oil discoveries tend to deflate interest in our message. That being the case, it’s useful, as a presenter, to have constantly updated information, to keep presentations topical, and to anticipate likely questions and objections based on recent news stories.

Of course, each presenter has a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to know your strengths—whether they be facility with humor, experience in the industry, or skill at data analysis—and make the most of them. Further advice that I might give about how to be a successful Peak Oil communicator is likely to descend even further to the level of mere platitude, but platitudes occasionally have their place.

Here’s one: Make definite assertions. If you’re not quotable or memorable, you will not be quoted or remembered. But back your assertions up with evidence.

Know your audience. If you are speaking to people who have never heard of Peak Oil before, your primary objective is to be credible while raising awareness and concern. If you are speaking to an audience of the already worried, your goal may be to bring shared understanding to a new level, or to connect it with specific current events.

Be prepared to answer questions. Nothing raises your credibility as much as the act of effectively and elegantly de-fusing what might initially seem to be a killer objection. In my experience, this is largely just a matter of being conversant with the facts, and then being sufficiently quick on your feet. The answers are there, and the objections of the Peak Oil skeptics generally fall apart quickly under even a few moments’ careful analysis.

An example comes to mind: a few months ago I was debating a prominent oil economist before a large audience at an international business school in Madrid. This economist insisted that the world will have plenty of oil to provide for increasing rates of consumption until at least the middle of the century. One of his main arguments was that most of the world has been insufficiently explored: far more oil wells have been drilled in North America than elsewhere, and if similar drilling rates could be achieved in Africa, the Polar regions, and the vast ocean basins, we could find enormous quantities of new oil, thus rendering Peak Oil concerns pointless and even quaint. It’s easy to see how persuasive such an argument can be for a novice audience. However, as I pointed out then, North America is where the oil industry started: in the early 20th century, wildcatters were drilling scattershot, with no understanding of the geophysics of proper well spacing. Therefore far more wells were drilled on this continent than were actually needed. The rest of the world will never be drilled in the same way, and especially not now that exploratory wells can cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. Lower drilling rates are a reflection of better exploration technology, and also of the paucity of promising new places to drill.

I could cite other critiques and objections from the skeptics, but few of them are much more credible than the one just mentioned.

Parenthetically, I would suggest, as others have done before, that it might be a good idea for one of our organizations to build and maintain a robust website, or set of pages on an existing site, specifically to address each of the standard misconceptions and objections raised by the Peak Oil skeptics. This would need to be updated frequently to answer whatever fresh nonsense might be spewing from the editorial pages of, for example, the New York Times. Matt Savinar did a good initial job of this on his website, but that was a few years ago and it constitutes only a first draft of what’s really needed. This could be a useful area of collaboration for many of our experts and all our existing Peak Oil organizations, and many relevant articles already exist in the Oil Drum archives. With regard to the issue of climate change, the website already does an excellent job at debunking skeptics, and we might learn from their successes.

But back to my chronology. By January 2008 I had moved on from my teaching job (actually, my college went broke) and was working full-time for Post Carbon Institute. And by 2009 I was also working closely with Transition US. I’ll have more to say about those organizations and some others in a moment.

Meanwhile, the ground shifted beneath our feet. As we all know, the global economy began contracting last year—though that’s just a nice, abstract way to put it. Industrial production fell. Corporations downsized or disappeared. Fifty trillion dollars in global capital vaporized in stock market crashes, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and defaults. Millions of people lost employment and housing. Globalization went into reverse.

Also, in 2008 the oil price spiked 50 percent higher, in inflation-adjusted terms, than at any point in previous history. It would be an enormous oversimplification to say that the oil price spike “caused” the world recession, but the fact that the price spike and the economic crisis occurred at the same time is hardly meaningless coincidence.

In effect, we are seeing a vindication of what many of us have been predicting for a long time. Even if it is still technically possible in the next few years for the oil industry to exceed its July 2008 production levels, the world economy has entered a trap from which there is no exit. The oil price that the petroleum industry needs in order to justify developing a new marginal barrel’s worth of production capacity is now nearly as high as the price that is known, on the basis of recent history, to trigger further economic contraction. We have reached a fundamental limit to growth, and its name is Peak Oil.

But in some ways this doesn’t feel like vindication at all. In 2008, with the oil price nudging close to $150 a barrel, the real and metaphorical phones at ASPO, Oil Drum, and Post Carbon Institute were ringing off the hook; yet today, we see op eds in prominent periodicals reassuring us that new oil discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil make the Peak Oil argument moot. The irony could hardly be more bitter or discouraging.

What has really happened, of course, is not that Peak Oil has been disproven or made irrelevant; but rather, that the issue has become more grave and complex.

There is still the need on our part to convey to the general public and policy makers that the technical data support the Peak Oil, and now also, by the way, the Peak Coal, theses—that need today, in fact, is greater than ever before. But now there is also the requirement to connect the issue of fossil fuel depletion with climate change, the financial crisis, and a score of indices of environmental decline—the other limits to growth. We must continue seeking to influence policy makers, but we also must respond to the needs of local governments and grassroots community groups that have already come to understand the problem and want to do something about it.

So while it’s useful to look back at what worked so far and what hasn’t, it’s probably even more important now to try to intuit the demands of circumstance in the next few months and years. We are in an entirely new economic period, and we must adapt our thinking and our messages accordingly.

It’s in view of this new economic landscape that I would like to go back now to a discussion of the two organizations I mentioned a moment ago, with which I find myself working.

Post Carbon Institute has gone through a process of learning and change over its short period of existence, and has arrived at a strategy that seems both reasonable and promising: We are positioning ourselves as a think tank for the transition. We have assembled a stable of about 30 Fellows, each with expertise in one of several relevant areas: Anthony Perl for transportation, Bill McKibben for climate change, Sandra Postel for water issues, David Fridley for renewable energy assessment, David Hughes for fossil fuel depletion, Wes Jackson and Michael Bomford in the areas of food and agriculture, Bill Ryerson on population, Josh Farley on steady-state economics—plus David Orr, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, Chris Martenson, Majora Carter, Rob Hopkins, Tom Whipple, and others. Our goal is to provide a steady stream of communications products—papers, books, videos, and lectures—that show the links between the resource, environmental, population, and economic crises of our time, while also pointing to inspiring examples and strategies for reducing consumption, preserving biodiversity, and building community.

The other organization I mentioned, Transition US, is the United States support hub for Transition Initiatives. Often known as Transition Towns, these phenomenal entities first sprang up in the UK, seeded by the brilliant work of Permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins. They are grass-roots community self-organizing efforts, and they operate from the optimistic premise that life can be better without fossil fuels. Post Carbon Institute and the Transition Initiatives are working in ever-closer collaboration, one organization providing communications materials, the other a method of delivery to early-adopting individuals and communities.

So far, so good. But is this enough? What should we be trying to do? Whom should we be trying to reach? What are we up against?

The apparent fact that the world has reached the end of economic growth as we have known it is momentous information. It needs to get to as many people as possible, and as soon as possible, if we collectively are going to be able to plan for contraction and manage the transition away from fossil fuels without succumbing to rapid, chaotic civilizational collapse. Of course, chaotic collapse may occur in any case, but it seems pointless to concede that dismal outcome before we have done all we can to preserve as much as possible of both nature and human culture, and to maximize the survival chances of both our species and the rest of the biosphere.

But however certain we may be of the importance of what we have to communicate, that’s no guarantee that policy makers or the mainstream media will perceive our message as being relevant, interesting, or even particularly credible.

As communicators, we have our work cut out for us. We have very limited resources in terms of funding and organizational capacity. And we haven’t much time. Now that the world economy is in an unprecedented and probably terminal phase of contraction, future events are more uncertain than ever. What will happen to the value of the US dollar if oil importing and exporting nations move to denominate their trade in a basket of currencies, or if the US tries to deal with ballooning deficits by attempting to borrow much more from its trading partners? And what will ensue from Iran’s insistence on developing nuclear power and perhaps weaponry, while other nations insist that this cannot be permitted to happen? Perhaps neither of these threats to stability will prove serious. But these are only two examples out of a dozen that could be cited, so that many credible future scenarios branching outward from current circumstances lead to deepening international chaos. That means we may have only a few years at best in which to gain significant traction. We do not have the luxury of a couple of decades or more in which to patiently build networks of the required organizations—including foundations, think tanks, schools, and media outlets. So we have to be extremely strategic with the resources that we do have.

What are those? Our organizations have received some initial funding, but as of now it is coming from only a few sources, while for the vast majority of other funders Peak Oil is hardly even a recognizable issue. We have the groups I’ve mentioned, and a few more, including Community Solutions. And there is plenty of work for all of them to do. Everyone who is concerned about the issues we discuss here should be supporting these organizations or websites, and the organizations themselves need to find ways to cooperate more and to develop coordinated strategies.

For example, what is our collective message if the oil price spikes again—which it could do if the value of the dollar nosedives, or if NATO organizes an embargo of Iran? On the other hand, what is our message if the price of oil remains moderate or low—as is likely if economic activity remains so depressed as to keep oil demand falling faster than oil production capacity?

And what would help us most to get our answers to those questions out to the media—a press office? A public relations firm? A Washington bureau?

Most likely, we’ll need all of those and more. If we are to be successful, we will have to use every communications tool available: books, newspapers, magazines, reports, scientific papers, press releases, op-eds, how-to manuals, websites, social networking technologies, YouTube, documentaries, radio, and maybe even billboards. Some of these we can develop in-house, but we will also need to find increasingly effective ways of inserting our message into mainstream media programs, publications, and discussions. This means developing contacts in prominent media outlets, and that in turn requires public relations skills. This is largely the province of full-time professionals, whose services we will need to engage, and that in turn will most likely translate to the need for more funding, and therefore for professional fund raisers (or “development directors,” as they’re known in the trade), who can in turn educate funders.

In short, while we must expand our capacity quickly, we have the beginnings of the institutions we need: with The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, we have robust websites; with Tom Whipple’s and Steve Andrews’s “Peak Oil Review,” published by ASPO, we have amazingly concise, content-rich weekly updates that give any careful reader about as much knowledge of these issues as world leaders and market insiders have—in some cases, more. Also thanks to ASPO, and until recently also to Community Solutions, we have had yearly conferences where we can get together to learn, regroup and compare notes. With Post Carbon Institute, we have an identified cadre of experts who can be called upon to comment on developments in all aspects of the emerging world crisis, and who can point to adaptive strategies and best practices. With Community Solutions, there is a rapidly growing mine of practical information for local groups to increase energy efficiency. And with Transition Towns, we have an organizing strategy that brings together local businesses, concerned citizens, and town governments in efforts to Power Down. We have already done a lot with the resources available to us.

Yet events will not stop to applaud us for these achievements. The emerging crisis far exceeds our current ability to respond to it. If the survivors of Hurricane Katrina required help to rebuild their homes and their lives, soon the inhabitants of every town and city in this nation and around the world will be in equally dire straits. Increasingly, the need will be less for technical analysis, and more for practical knowledge of how to get by when there are few or no jobs, when there is rampant homelessness, when the necessities of life have become unaffordable or unavailable, when banks and businesses of all kinds are failing.

We cannot fill those needs directly. But we can help both policy makers and the general public realign their thinking. If humanity spends the next few years in failed efforts to re-start growth in the conventional sense, the prognosis is not good, because time and resources will be wasted in an effort to do what cannot and should not be done. In the opinion of many, this has already happened with the enormous Wall Street bailouts. And that’s what will continue to happen unless the message somehow is both transmitted and received that growth is over, and that our highly adaptable species must rapidly and cooperatively downsize nearly all its activities. Yes, we need alternative energy sources, better insulated buildings, and maybe even a few electric cars. But none of these things will enable us to cling to an expanding consumer culture serving a growing population. We have entered the century of transition, decline, contraction—choose your favorite word. It is the century of limits. And we must learn quickly to get by with less—ultimately, much less—of just about everything—in order to live within those limits.

It is a tough message. But it’s the truth, and somebody has to utter it. I guess it’s our job, because we are the ones who have shown up.

#209: Our Evanescent Culture And the Awesome Duty of Librarians

MuseLetter 209 / October 2009 by Richard Heinberg
Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 123 KB)

1. Our Evanescent Culture
And the Awesome Duty of Librarians

How secure is our civilization’s accumulated knowledge?

It is a question that, in a fundamental sense, transcends many life-and-death concerns (threats of sickness, natural disaster, or military invasion) that prompt us collectively to spend fortunes on insurance, health care, and weaponry. We know that we each individually will die, though we are willing to go to great lengths to delay the event as long as possible. But we have an overarching shared interest that the world of ideas will go on without us: that our descendants will continue to compose music, invent tools, refine scientific knowledge, and write histories, extending into the indefinite future the cumulative, constantly evolving universe of signs, symbols, and skills that have enriched our lives. Cultural death—the passing of the wisdom, artistic creations, and practical knowledge of an entire people, painstakingly built up over many generations—is a loss almost too wrenching to contemplate.

Yet cultural death happens. The examples from history are legion. Anthropologists and archaeologists have identified well over 10,000 distinct human cultures, of which most have perished, many by absorption into one multi-ethnic civilization or another. Linguists have catalogued over 6,000 human languages; again, most are extinct or endangered, often for a similar reason—absorption of indigenous populations into multi-ethnic urban civilizations. But civilizations are also mortal: about 24 are known to have existed over the past 5,000 years, and again most are now dust.

Here is perhaps the most salient fact: when past civilizations were in the process of decline and collapse, they seem to have given insufficient thought to preserving the best of their achievements; indeed, the reverse often happened—libraries were burned, statues defaced, tombs looted. Archaeologists make heroic efforts to piece together the histories of these vanished empires, but they face enormous hurdles. Even the monumental and long-lasting civilization of ancient Egypt left behind more questions about itself than answers: we’re not even sure how much arithmetic and geography the average educated Egyptian knew.

It might seem that our own civilization’s achievements are less vulnerable. After all, the sheer weight, volume, and variety of contemporary cultural materials is unprecedented, including hundreds of millions of books, and more hundreds of millions of newspapers, magazines, paintings, sculptures, photographs, motion picture films, phonograph records, CDs, DVDs, websites, and on and on.

But all this volume and diversity may be deceiving. In some respects our culture is arguably more ephemeral than most others, and a surprisingly large proportion of our cultural materials is in danger of being swept away with astonishing speed, leaving virtually no trace—like a candle flame vanishing in a puff of wind.

If we want future generations to have the benefit of our achievements, we should start thinking more seriously about what to preserve, and how to preserve it.

The Ascendancy of Electronic Media

The survival struggle of America’s remaining newspapers is symptomatic of a trend that began in the 1970s, when computers began finding their way into businesses, schools, and homes. Today many of us get our news from the screen, not from the local print daily—and the proportion is growing. Major newspapers like the New York Times now have robust websites to accompany their print editions; but many industry forecasters say the print editions may not survive. Even before the beginning of the current recession, newspaper advertising revenues were declining steeply, and this year daily average circulation for 395 newspapers has fallen 7.1 percent to 34.4 million (from 37.1 million last year). In recent months the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have ceased print news operations, and both the Chicago Sun Times and the Tribune have filed for bankruptcy.

The magazine and book trades are likewise evolving quickly under pressure from the Internet. Something like 50,000 new book titles still appear each year, and the book industry remains profitable in most years; however, according to Book Industry TRENDS 2009, many insiders think advances in digital publishing will force an unprecedented transformation of the industry, as ever fewer books are released in print versions and more in online or e-book formats—a trend already sweeping the textbook sector.

As with newspapers, most magazines now publish their content online, and some (like The Ecologist) have already gone all-electronic, jettisoning their print versions. Perhaps the most economically secure of print publications are also the most ephemeral in their content—People magazine and other fixtures of the supermarket checkout line.

The production processes for books, magazines, and newspapers—from writing to typesetting, printing, and distribution—are already thoroughly computerized.

Digitization has nearly completed its takeover of the motion picture, photography, and music industries. Just try to buy a package of Kodachrome film for your 35mm camera, or an analog recording of your favorite band’s latest songs. And with the explosive growth of I-tunes, YouTube (and other sources of streaming video), and online photo galleries, the Internet is gradually becoming the primary delivery medium for all these media.

Libraries are being forced to adapt, as they face enormous pressure to expand digital media at the expense of traditional media. For archivists, the emerging trend can be summarized in one word: digitization. Whether the original exists on paper, vinyl, or celluloid, its future lies in endless strings of ones and zeroes encoded on magnetic or laser-etched media, which will presumably preserve the original content while making it accessible to millions or billions of people today and in future generations.

At the same time, the very function of libraries is up for grabs: a presentation at the 2008 American Library Association conference reported in Library Journal suggested that libraries should be “more and more a place to do stuff, not just to find stuff. We need to stop being a grocery store and start being a kitchen.” As libraries become multi-purpose cultural centers (in many occasions serving as informal daytime homeless shelters), one of their primary practical functions is the provision of free public Internet access, with computer included. Yet these new demands and functions arrive at a time when funding for libraries is shrinking, as city and state budgets are downsized to fit evaporating tax revenues.

Preservation of digitized knowledge can become a problem simply because of obsolescence. Think of the billions of floppy disks manufactured and encoded during the years between 1980 and 2000: few of us still have working computers capable of retrieving the data on those disks. But this is hardly the worldwide information system’s point of greatest vulnerability.

Ultimately the entire project of digitized cultural preservation depends on one thing: electricity. As soon as the power goes off, access to the Internet goes down. CDs and DVDs become meaningless plastic disks; e-books become inscrutable and useless; digital archives become as illegible as cuneiform tablets—or more so. Altogether, digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever.

Without precious kilowatts, what would survive? Sculpture and architecture would persist. Previous generations of sound and visual media might be decipherable: old phonograph records could still be made to emit music, given a hand crank, needle, and megaphone, and silent films would be relatively easy to show. Books and collections of physical newspapers and magazines would fare reasonably well for a few decades, but deteriorating acid-laden paper threatens the survival of about 85 percent of books and nearly 100 percent of newspapers and magazines (ancient books written on parchment and acid-free paper could last many more centuries).

It’s ironic to think that the cave paintings of Lascaux may be far more durable than the photos from the Hubble space telescope.

Altogether, if the lights were to go out now, in just a century or two the vast majority of our recently recorded knowledge would be gone or inaccessible.

How Likely Is Blackout?

If we could be fully confident that a more-or-less permanent blackout is unthinkable, then this discussion would be a purely academic exercise. Where might such confidence come from?

Two questions could help us assess the magnitude of risk: What has to go wrong for the lights to go out?, and, What has to go right for them to stay on?

Here’s a short list of what would have to go wrong:

  • Failure to replace aging infrastructure. All knowledgeable observers agree that North America’s electricity grid system is overdue for a massive upgrade. According to electrical industry consultant Jason Makansi in his 2007 book Lights Out: The Electricity Crisis, the Global Economy, What it Means to You, “You almost can’t read a report on the U.S. electricity industry that doesn’t decry the state of the nation’s transmission grid.” The consequences of failure to invest tens of billions in new infrastructure will be more frequent and ever-longer blackouts and brownouts, leading perhaps to electricity rationing and a host of fairly dire economic impacts.
  • Unavailability of sufficient investment capital. Replacing infrastructure will require capital and political will. The current grid was built when energy was cheap, demand for electricity was lower, and the economy was growing at a rapid pace. Today investment capital is scarce, so the Federal government will have to pay for most of the grid upgrade. But the U.S. budget is already overextended in paying for bailout and stimulus packages, not to mention a couple of lingering wars. Until an unavoidable crisis arises, grid investment is likely to continue being moved back in the line of projects needing money.
  • Inability of the industry to maintain sufficient supplies of fossil fuels for electricity generation. In my new book Blackout, I discuss credible reports suggesting that U.S. coal production could peak in the years between 2020 and 2030 and decline afterward, with prices for the resource inevitably escalating. Natural gas seems plentiful for the time being, but continued exploration and production from new shale gas plays require high gas prices; further, problems with well productivity and low energy return on energy invested may render the new gas plays a mere flash in the pan.
  • Inability of alternatives to make up for fossil fuels. If higher-priced and soon-to-be scarce coal and gas could be easily, quickly, and cheaply replaced with other energy sources, fossil fuel supply limits would pose no problem. However, all of the available alternatives are problematic in one way or another. Yes, we could have more wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power—but it will take time and enormous amounts of investment capital (see above), and most of these alternatives are intermittent energy sources. (Post Carbon Institute and International Forum on Globalization have prepared a lengthy, soon-to-be published report, Searching for a Miracle: “Net Energy” and the Fate of Industrial Societies, that examines 18 energy sources across 10 criteria, concluding that no combination of alternatives is likely to be able to replace fossil fuels within a reasonable time frame, and that therefore the world must rely on energy conservation as its primary strategy to deal with climate change as well as oil, coal, and gas depletion.)
  • Nuclear war. The electromagnetic pulse generated by the explosion of hydrogen bombs has the capacity to fry the grid, and hundreds of millions of electrical devices plugged into it, nearly instantaneously. For war planners, this possibility is not only real and credible, it is one of the greatest causes of worry with regard to national survival following any nuclear exchange.
  • Systemic vulnerabilities. We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected, and in which the pursuit of economic efficiency has reduced overall resilience. In such a system, problems in one area have a way of spilling over to create more problems elsewhere. For example, difficulties with oil supply will also eventually impact the electricity system, since spare parts and fuel (coal) for that system are made and/or transported with oil; similarly, problems with the electric grid will impact oil supply, since pumps and refineries require alternating current. Similarly, natural disasters, sabotage, social breakdown, and economic collapse could have knock-on effects (some too circuitous to predict) that would imperil continued, reliable delivery of electrical power.

What has to go right in order to avert grid breakdown? In many respects, this list could be a mirror image of the previous one:

  • Successful massive investments in grid upgrades. As discussed above, these are far from being assured.
  • A rapid, successful conversion to alternative energy sources. Again, as mentioned above, this is a long shot at best.
  • Averting of international conflicts that might go nuclear. So far, so good….
  • Averting of grid breakdowns due to natural disasters, etc., or rapid recovery from such problems. Society has been able to do this for decades: even in the cases of hurricanes, earthquakes, and wars, recovery was usually rapid. But increasingly crises are becoming synergetic.

The breakdown of electricity supply systems is not just a matter of theory. In about 100 nations around the globe, supplies of power are already problematic. Consider just one example: the nuclear-armed nation of Pakistan. Here is a quote from an article posted earlier this year on the website All Things Pakistan:

While rolling blackouts or load shedding as its locally known has always been a staple of daily life in Pakistan, the problem has become acute in the last couple of years. In the second half of December, the situation got so bad that WAPDA & KESC (power generation entities in Pakistan) resorted to draconian levels of load shedding. The power cuts during this time amounted to 20-22 hours a day in most small cities and even cities like Karachi were seeing 18+ hours of load shedding.

Pakistan is a poor, politically unstable country; surely nothing like this could ever happen in a wealthy industrial nation! Yet consider the situation in Britain: a recent article in the Telegraph was headlined, “Britain Heading Back to the Dark Ages: The UK is facing a tipping point over the next few years in its ability to generate enough power to satisfy an ever-increasing demand.” The article notes: “Over the next 10 years, one third of Britain’s power-generating capacity needs to be replaced with cleaner fuels, as a result of European laws on pollution. By 2025 the situation is expected to worsen….” Another article, this one from the BBC, is titled, “Britain Could Face Blackouts by 2016”; it quotes David MacKay, a researcher at Cambridge University and soon-to-be government energy advisor, as saying, “The scale of building required [to avert blackouts] is absolutely enormous.”

Generating electricity is not all that difficult in principle; people have been doing it since the 19th century. But generating power in large amounts, reliably, without both cheap energy inputs and secure availability of spare parts and investment capital for maintenance, poses an increasing challenge.

To be sure, here in the U.S. the lights are unlikely to go out all at once, and permanently, any time soon. The most likely scenario would see a gradual increase in rolling blackouts and other forms of power rationing, beginning in a few years, with some regions better off than others. After a while, unless governments and utilities could muster the needed effort, electricity might increasingly be seen as a luxury, even a curiosity. Reliable, ubiquitous, 24/7 power would become just a dim memory. If the challenges noted above are not addressed, many nations, including the U.S., could be in such straits by the third decade of the century. In the best instance, nations would transition as much as possible to renewable power, maintaining a functioning national grid or network of local distribution systems, but supplying rationed power in smaller amounts than is the currently the case. Digitized data would still be retrievable part of the time, by some people.

In the worst instance, economic and social crises, wars, fuel shortages, and engineering problems would rebound upon one another, creating a snowballing pattern of systemic failures leading to permanent, total blackout.

It may seem inconceivable that it would ever come to that. After all, electrical power means so much to us that we assume that officials in charge will do whatever is necessary to keep the electrons flowing. But, as Jared Diamond documents in his book Collapse, elites don’t always do the sensible thing even when the alternative to rational action is universal calamity.

Altogether, the assumption that long-term loss of power is unthinkable just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A permanent blackout scenario should exist as a contingency in our collective planning process.

Remember Websites?

Over the short term, if the power were to go out, loss of cultural knowledge would not be at the top of most people’s lists of concerns. They would worry about more mundane necessities like refrigeration, light, heat, and banking. It takes only a few moments of reflection (or an experience of living through a natural disaster) to appreciate how many of life’s daily necessities and niceties would be suddenly absent.

Of course, everyone did live without power until only a few generations ago, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide still manage in its absence. So it is certainly possible to carry on the essential aspects of human life sans functioning wall outlets. One could argue that, post-blackout, there would be a period of adaptation, during which people would reformulate society and simply get on with their business—living perhaps in a manner similar to their 19th century ancestors or the contemporary Amish.

The problem with that reassuring picture is that we have come to rely on electricity for so many things—and have so completely let go of knowledge, skills, and machinery that could enable us to live without electrical power—that the adaptive process might not go well. For the survivors, a 19th century way of life might not be attainable without decades or centuries spent re-acquiring knowledge and skills, and re-inventing machinery.

Imagine the scene, perhaps two decades from now. After years of gradually lengthening brownouts and blackouts, your town’s power has been down for days, and no one knows if or when it can be restored. No one is even sure if the blackout is statewide or nation-wide, because radio broadcasts have become more sporadic. The able members of your community band together to solve the mounting practical problems threatening your collective existence. You hold a meeting.

Someone brings up the problems of water delivery and wastewater treatment: the municipal facilities require power to supply these essential services. A woman in the back of the room speaks: “I once read about how you can purify water with a ceramic pot, some sand, and charcoal. It’s on a website….” Her voice trails off. There are no more websites.

The conversation turns to food. Now that the supermarkets are closed (no functioning lights or cash registers) and emptied by looters, it’s obviously a good idea to encourage backyard and community gardening. But where should townspeople get their seeds? A middle-aged gentleman pipes up: “There’s this great mail-order seed company—just go online….” He suddenly looks confused and sits down. “Online” is a world that no longer exists.

Is There Something We Should Be Doing?

There is a message here for leaders at all levels of government and business—obviously so for emergency response organizations. But I’ve singled out librarians in this essay because they may bear the gravest responsibility of all in preparing for the possible end of electric civilization.

Without widely available practical information, recovery from a final blackout would be difficult in the extreme. Therefore it is important that the kinds of information that people would need are identified, and that the information is preserved in such a way that it will be accessible under extreme circumstances, and to folks in widely scattered places.

Of course, librarians can never bear sole responsibility for cultural preservation; it takes a village, as Hillary Clinton once proclaimed in another context. Books are clearly essential to cultural survival, but they are just inert objects in the absence of people who can read them; we also need skills-based education to keep alive both the practical and the performing arts. What good is a set of parts to the late Beethoven string quartets—arguably the greatest music our species has ever produced—if there’s no one around who can play the violin, viola, or cello well enough to make sense of them? And what good would a written description of horse-plowing do to a post-industrial farmer without the opportunity to learn hands-on from someone with experience?

Nevertheless, for librarians the message could not be clearer: Don’t let books die. It’s understandable that librarians spend much effort trying to keep up with the digital revolution in information storage and retrieval: their main duty is to serve their community as it is, not a community that existed decades ago or one that may exist decades hence. Yet the thought that they may be making the materials they are trying to preserve ever more vulnerable to loss should be cause for pause.

There is a task that needs doing: the conservation of essential cultural knowledge in non-digital form. This task will require the sorting and evaluation of information for its usefulness to cultural survival—triage, if you will—as well as its preservation. It may be unrealistic to expect librarians to take on this responsibility, given their existing mandate and lack of resources—but who else will do it? Librarians catalog, preserve, and make available accumulated cultural materials, especially those in written form. That’s their job. What profession is better suited to accept this charge?

* * *

The contemplation of electric civilization’s collapse can’t help but provoke philosophical musings. Perhaps cultural death is a necessary component of evolution—as is the death of individual organisms. In any case, no one can prevent culture from changing, and many aspects of our present culture arguably deserve to disappear (we each probably carry our own list around in our head of what kinds of music, advertising messages, and television shows we think the world could do without). Assuming that humans survive the current century—by no means a sure thing—another culture will arise sooner or later to replace our current electric civilization. Its co-creators will inevitably use whatever skills and notions are at hand to cobble it together (just as the inhabitants of Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance drew upon cultural flotsam from the Roman Empire as well as influences from the Arab world), and it will gradually assume a life of its own. Still, we must ask: What cultural ingredients might we want to pass along to our descendants? What cultural achievements would we want to be remembered by?

Civilization has come at a price. Since the age of Sumer cities have been terrible for the environment, leading to deforestation, loss of topsoil, and reduced biodiversity. There have been human costs as well, in the forms of economic inequality (which hardly existed in pre-state societies) and loss of personal autonomy. These costs have grown to unprecedented levels with the advent of industrialism—civilization on crack—and have been borne not by civilization’s beneficiaries, but primarily by other species and people in poor nations and cultures. But nearly all of us who are aware of these costs like to think of this bargain-with-the-devil as having some purpose greater than a temporary increase in creature comforts, safety, and security for a minority within society. The full-time division of labor that is the hallmark of civilization has made possible science—with its enlightening revelations about everything from human origins to the composition of the cosmos. The arts and philosophy have developed to degrees of sophistication and sublimity that escape the descriptive capacity of words.

Yet so much of what we have accomplished, especially in the last few decades, currently requires for its survival the perpetuation and growth of energy production and consumption infrastructure—which exact a continued, escalating environmental and human toll. At some point, this all has to stop, or at least wind down to some more sustainable scale of pillage.

But if it does, and in the process we lose the best of what we have achieved, will it all have been for nothing?

2. Is the Global Oil Tank Half-Full, Is It Half-Empty
 …or Are We Running on Fumes?

In his article in the New York Times September 24, “Oil Industry Sets a Brisk Pace of New Discoveries”, staff reporter Jad Mouawad cites oil discoveries totaling ten billion barrels for the first half of 2009. The Tupi field in the Gulf of Mexico alone accounts for four billion barrels of crude that may eventually find its way into the world oil system. Indeed, this year has seen discovery results that could end up being the best since 2000. But, the article notes, the new oil was expensive to find, it will be expensive to extract, and both exploration and production are only possible because of high levels of investment and sophisticated, expensive new technologies.

To justify the needed level of effort, the oil industry requires prices in excess of $60 per barrel, according to Mouawad; otherwise, the new projects will turn out to be money-losers. Some analysts believe the magic break-even number is closer to $70. In any case, the figure is much higher than was required only a few years ago, and still-higher prices may be necessary to make exploration and production profitable for future projects—prices perhaps close to $80.

According to Mouawad, “While recent years have featured speculation about a coming peak and subsequent decline in oil production, people in the industry say there is still plenty of oil in the ground, especially beneath the ocean floor, even if finding and extracting it is becoming harder.” So the new discoveries presumably indicate that peak oil has been delayed, and that our concerns about the event have been misplaced.

Yet this would be a strange conclusion to draw from the facts cited, for two reasons.

First: The ten billion barrels of new discoveries reported so far do initially sound encouraging: if the second half of 2009 is as productive, that means a total of 20 billion barrels of new oil will eventually be available to consumers as a result of discoveries this year. But how much oil does the world use annually? In recent years, that amount has hovered within the range of 29-31 billion barrels. Therefore (assuming continued good results throughout 2009), in its most successful recent year of exploration efforts, the oil industry will have found only two-thirds of the amount it extracted from previously discovered oilfields.

When the “ten billion barrels” figure is framed this way, its “gee whiz” shimmer quickly fades. (Yes, the article discusses the phenomenon of “reserve growth,” which is supposed to render the pace of new discoveries less important—but that red herring has been exposed plenty of times, including here.) The Times article hints that 2009’s high discovery rate may be the beginning of a new trend, so that we may see even better rates in future years; but remember, that hypothetical outcome hinges on a crucial factor—increasing investment in exploration and production—which leads us to a second critical thought.

The staggering levels of investment that enabled drilling in miles of ocean water, so as to achieve the 2009 finds, were occasioned by historic petroleum price run-ups from 2004 to 2008—with prices eventually spiking high enough to cripple the auto industry, the airlines, and global trade. As petroleum prices climbed ever higher, oil companies saw sense in drilling test wells in risky, inhospitable places. But in recent decades oil price spikes have repeatedly triggered recessions. And clearly, as we all discovered rather forcibly last year, the global economy cannot sustain an oil price of $147 a barrel: as the economy crashed in the latter months of 2008, so did oil demand and oil prices (which hit a low in December-January near $30).

So, what is a sustainable price? A review of recent economic history yields the observation that when petroleum sells above about $80 a barrel (in inflation-adjusted terms) the economy begins to stall. Oil industry wags have begun to speak of a “Goldilocks” price range of $60 to $80 a barrel (not too high, not too low—just right!) as the prerequisite for economic recovery (For OPEC, Current Oil Price Is Just Right). If prices are higher, the economy sputters, reducing oil demand and subsequently seriously undermining prices; if they drift lower, not enough investment will go toward exploration and production, so that oil shortages and price spikes will become inevitable a few years hence (indeed, since the oil price crash of late 2008 over $150 billion of investments in new oil projects have been cancelled). If the market can keep prices reliably within that charmed $60 to $80 range, all will be well. Too bad that petroleum prices have grown extremely volatile in recent years: we must hope and pray that trend is over (though there’s no apparent reason to assume that it is).

Let me summarize: the industry needs oil prices that are both stable and near economy-killing levels in order to justify investments necessary to possibly replace depleting reserves and overcome declining production in existing oilfields (I say “possibly” because we have insufficient evidence as yet to conclusively show that new discoveries enabled by expensive new exploration and production technologies can offset declines in the world’s aging giant oilfields).

Should this picture lead the viewer to come away with reassured thoughts of “No worries, happy motoring?” Or does this look more like a portrait of peak oil?

Several commentators (including analysts with financial services company Raymond James Associates and Macquarie, the Australian-headquartered investment bank) have concluded from recent petroleum statistics that global oil production peaked in 2008. Macquarie is saying that world production capacity is peaking this year, which is a nuanced way of saying the same thing, since currently production is constrained more by depressed demand than by immediate shortfalls in supply; in effect both organizations assert that the world will never see higher rates of extraction than the so-far record level of July 2008.

I see nothing in the recent discovery data that should call that conclusion into doubt.

September MuseLetter

Due to unforeseen licensing issues I am not able to publish the Museletter which I had ready for September. I hope to be able to return to normal service in October. In the meantime my latest commentary has been published here on