The future we face is unknown in its details, large and small, but two factors are already in play: fossil fuel depletion (“peak oil”) and climate change. Fossil fuel depletion may seem far away when gas prices are lower than they in recent years, but they’re bound to go back up again. And climate change, as we come to the end of a long, hot summer, marked by unprecedented (and still-burning) forest fires in California, Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere, is already at the forefront of our minds.
The guy I turn to make sense of all this, Richard Heinberg, published a collection of essays from 2012 to this year, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels. Going on the premise that many of you may lack the time to read this important book, I’ve boiled it down to 19 pages for you. This may still seem like a tome, but if you persist till the end, I think you’ll agree that it’s been worth your time. Besides, my take is at the end!
Heinberg begins with some revealing statistics: “Between 1998 and 2005, the oil industry invested $1.5 trillion in exploration and production, and this investment yielded 8.6 million barrels per day in additional world oil production. Between 2005 and 2013, the industry spent $4 trillion on E&P, yet this more-than-doubled investment produced only 4 mb/d in added production. The costs of oil exploration and production are currently rising at about 10% per year, according to Steve Kopits of the energy analytics firm Douglas-Westwood. This is squeezing the industry’s profit margins, since it’s getting ever harder to pass these costs on to consumers.
The average energy profit ratio (energy return over energy invested) for US oil production has fallen from 100:1 to 10:1, and the downward trend is accelerating as more and more oil comes from tight deposits (shale) and deep water. Canada’s prospects are perhaps even more dismal than those of the United States: the tar sands of Alberta have an EROEI that ranges from 3.2:1 to 5:1.1. Unless our investment of energy in producing more energy yields an averaged profit ratio of roughly 10:1 or more, it may not be possible to maintain an industrial (as opposed to an agrarian) mode of societal organization over the long run [italics mine].
‘Demand destruction’ has so far set a limit on global petroleum prices. Yet for the major oil companies, prices currently aren’t high enough to pay for the development of new projects in the Arctic or in ultra-deepwater. Soaring fuel prices also wallop airlines, the tourism industry, and farmers. Even real estate prices are impacted, since as gasoline gets more expensive, the lure of distant suburbs for prospective homebuyers wanes. It’s more than mere coincidence that the US housing bubble burst in 2008, just as oil prices hit an all-time high. Rising gasoline prices since 2005 have led to a reduction in the average number of miles traveled by US vehicles annually, a trend toward less driving by young people, and efforts on the part of the auto industry to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Altogether, American oil consumption is today roughly 20% below what it would have been if growth trends in the previous decades had continued.
To people concerned about climate change, much of this sounds like good news. There’s just one catch. None of this is happening as a result of long-range, comprehensive planning. And it will take a lot of planning and effort to minimize the human impact of a societal shift from relative energy abundance to relative energy scarcity. In fact, there is virtually no discussion occurring among officials about the larger economic implications of declining energy returns on investment. Indeed, rather than soberly assessing the situation and its imminent economic challenges, our policy makers are stuck in a state of public relations-induced euphoria, high on temporarily spiking gross US oil and gas production numbers.
The obvious solution to declining fossil fuel returns on investment is to transition to alternative energy sources as quickly as possible. We’ll have to do this anyway to address the climate crisis. But from an energy accounting point of view, it may not offer much help. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind have characteristics very different from those of fossil fuels: the former are intermittent, while the latter are available on demand. Solar and wind can’t affordably power airliners or eighteen-wheel trucks. Moreover, many renewable energy sources have a relatively low energy profit ratio.
One of the indicators of low or declining energy returns on energy investment is a greater requirement for human labor in the energy production process. In an economy suffering from high unemployment, this may seem like a boon. Indeed, wind and solar energy are often touted as job creators, employing more people than the coal and oil industries put together (even though they produce far less energy for society). Jobs are good, but what would happen if we went all the way back to the average energy returns-on-investment of agrarian times? There’d certainly be plenty of work needing to be done. But we’d be living in a society very different from the one we’re accustomed to, one in which most people would be full-time energy producers and society would be able to support relatively few specialists in other activities. This will be a simpler, slower, and poorer economy.
If our economy runs on energy, and our energy prospects are gloomy, how is it that the economy is recovering? The simplest answer is, it’s not, except as measured by a few misleading statistics. Each month the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases figures for new jobs created, and they look good at first glance. Most of these new jobs pay less than jobs lost in recent years, however. Also, labor force participation rates are at the lowest level in 35 years, and unemployment statistics don’t include people who’ve given up looking for work. All told, according to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say they’re worse off today than they were a year ago.
Cheap, high-EROEI energy and genuine economic growth are disappearing, and rather than recognizing this fact, our government hides it from us. If we recognized the trends and did a little planning, there could be an upside to all of this. We’ve become overspecialized anyway. We teach our kids to operate machines so sophisticated that almost no one can build one from scratch, but not how to cook, sew, repair broken tools, or grow food. We seem to be less happy year by year. We’re overcrowded, and continuing population growth only makes matters worse. Why not encourage family planning instead? Studies suggest we could dial back on consumption and be more satisfied with our lives.
What would the world look and feel like if we deliberately and intelligently nudged the brakes on material consumption, reduced our energy throughput, and relearned some general skills? A few people have already done the relevant experiment. Take an online virtual tour of Dancing Rabbit ecovillage in northeast Missouri, or Lakabe in northern Spain. But you don’t have to move to an ecovillage to join in the fun; there are thousands of Transition Initiatives worldwide running essentially the same experiment in ordinary towns and cities, just not so intensively. Take a look at the website resilience.org any day of the week to see reports on these experiments, and tips on what you could do to adapt more successfully to our new economic reality.
All of these efforts have a couple of things in common: First, they entail a lot of hard work and, apparently, yield considerable satisfaction. Second, they’re self-organized and self-directed, not funded or overseen by government. The latter point is crucial, since our political system is currently too broken to grasp the nature of the problems facing us. This is unfortunate, because even a little large-scale planning and support could help; without it, the transition will be more chaotic than necessary, and a lot of people will be hurt needlessly.”
The bottom line, according to Heinberg: “We must learn to be successfully and happily poorer. This means decentralization, simplification, and localization; becoming less reliant on debt; and learning survival skills like growing food. We can make this transition successfully, if not happily, if enough of us embrace Lean Society thinking and habits.
Gasoline-powered civilization began recently, in the mid-19th century, spreading across the globe in mere decades. Visualize ancient subterranean oil reservoirs rapidly depleting, with half of Earth’s entire inheritance of conventional crude converted to carbon dioxide and water during the lifetime of an average baby boomer (1950–2025). Now nations are straining to adjust to declining oil abundance, searching for alternatives, and fighting over what’s left. We’re not running out of oil – we’ve only begun tapping tar sands, tight oil, and polar oil. But what’s left, though impressive in quantity, will be expensive, risky, and slow to extract.
For the majority of us to switch to electric cars, the economy would have to keep growing, so that more people could afford to buy them. A more likely scenario: as fuel gets increasingly expensive the economy will falter, rendering the transition to electric cars too little, too late.
Visualize life without gasoline. You might as well start doing so now, at least in your imagination; soon enough, this will no longer be an exercise. How will your food be grown and transported? How will you get around? Will your job still exist? How will your community function?”
Having posed these questions, Heinberg turns to “global warming – by far the worst environmental challenge humans have ever confronted. It results from our current fossil-fuel energy regime, and averting catastrophic climate change will require us to end our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. Ocean acidification is also a consequence of burning fossil fuels, and most other environmental crises (like nitrogen runoff pollution created by fertilizers made from fossil fuels, and most air pollution) can be traced to the same source. Therefore ending our addiction to fossil fuels is essential if we want future generations of humans (and countless other species) to inherit a habitable planet.
We’re headed toward a (nearly) all-renewable-energy economy one way or the other,” Heinberg says, adding that a little planning for that would be nice. “If society is to avoid civilization-threatening levels of climate change, the use of fossil fuels will have to be reduced proactively by 80–90% by 2050.”
Running down the list of non-fossil fuel sources of energy, beginning with nuclear power, Heinberg says that “most nations have concluded that nuclear power is too costly and risky, and supplies of uranium, the predominant fuel for nuclear power, are limited anyway. Thorium, breeder, fusion, and other nuclear alternatives may hold theoretical promise, but there’s virtually no hope that we can resolve the remaining myriad practical challenges, commercialize the technologies, and deploy tens of thousands of new power plants within just a few decades. That leaves renewable energy sources – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, and wave power – to power the economy of the future.
In the process of transition, the ways that society uses energy must change at least as much as the ways society produces energy. Every energy source possesses a unique set of characteristics: some sources are more portable than others, or more concentrated, and some are intermittent, scalable, diffuse, renewable, environmentally risky, or expensive. We’ve built our current economy to take advantage of the special properties of fossil fuels. The renewable energy sources available to replace oil, gas, and coal have very different characteristics and will therefore tend to support a different kind of economy – one that’s less mobile, more rooted in place; less globalized, more localized; less when-we-want-it, more when-it’s-available; less engineered, more organic.
The quantity of energy that will be available during the transition from fossil to renewable sources is also in doubt. While ever-more-rapid rates of extraction of fossil fuels powered a growing economy during the 20th century, society will struggle to maintain current levels of total energy production in the 21st, let alone grow them to meet projected demand. Indeed, there are credible scenarios in which available energy could decline significantly. We’ll also have to invest a lot of the fossil energy we do have in building post-fossil energy infrastructure. Energy efficiency can help along the way, but only marginally. The global economy will almost certainly stagnate or contract accordingly.”
Heinberg acknowledges that this “message faces a tough audience, and flies against deep-seated interests. Many economists and politicians don’t buy the assertion that energy is at the core of our species-wide survival challenge. They think the game of human success-or-failure revolves around money, military power, or technological advancement. If we toggle prices, taxes, and interest rates; maintain proper trade rules; invest in technology research and development; and discourage military challenges to the current international order, they say, growth can continue indefinitely and everything will be fine. They see climate change and resource depletion as peripheral problems that can be dealt with through pricing mechanisms or regulations.
Fossil fuel companies may understand the importance of energy, but, having a powerful economic incentive to block general acceptance of the message that ‘renewables are the future,’ they claim that there’s plenty of oil, gas, and coal available to fuel society for decades to come. Some policy wonks buy ‘it’s all about energy,’ but are also jittery about ‘renewables are the future’ and won’t go anywhere near ‘growth is over.’ A few of these folks like to think of themselves as environmentalists, including the Breakthrough Institute and writers like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. A majority of government officials are in the same camp, viewing nuclear power, natural gas, carbon capture and storage (‘clean coal’), and further technological innovation as pathways to solving the climate crisis without the need to curtail economic growth. Other environment-friendly folks buy ‘it’s all about energy’ and ‘renewables are the future,’ but remain allergic to the ‘growth is over,’ saying that we can transition to 100% renewable power with no sacrifice in terms of economic growth, comfort, or convenience. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute are leaders of this chorus. Theirs is a reassuring message, but if it doesn’t happen to be factually true (and there are many energy experts who argue persuasively that it isn’t), then it’s of limited helpfulness because it fails to recommend the kinds or degrees of change in energy usage essential to a successful transition.
Questioning whether growth can continue is deeply subversive – not only objectionable to economic conservatives, but abhorrent to many progressives who believe economies must continue to grow so the working class can get a larger piece of the proverbial pie, and the ‘underdeveloped’ world can improve standards of living.”
Heinberg notes that “back in the 1970s, when environmental limits were first becoming apparent, catastrophe could have been averted with only a relatively small course correction – a gradual tapering of growth and a slow decline in fossil fuel reliance. Now, only a ‘cold turkey’ approach will suffice. If a critical majority of people couldn’t be persuaded then of the need for a gentle course correction, can they now be talked into undertaking deliberate change on a scale and at a speed that might be nearly as traumatic as the climate collision we’re trying to avoid?
Managerial elites will not be persuaded of all three the above conclusions till it’s too late to organize a proactive energy transition. Does this mean that society is headed for sudden and utter ruin, that there is nothing we can do to improve our prospects, and that there’s absolutely no point in attempting to persuade a broad audience of the need for behavior change? Hardly. As Dmitry Orlov explains in his book The Five Stages of Collapse, there are degrees of disorder that can unfold as societies hit the wall. The five stage of collapse he identifies are financial, commercial, political, social, and cultural, and in a recent essay he adds a sixth stage: ecological collapse. The takeaway is simple: if you see the society around you approaching a period of disintegrative change, do whatever’s necessary to stop the process before it reaches stages 4, 5, or (heaven forbid) 6.
Elected leaders could help in this vital transformation if they were inclined to do so – for example, by ditching GDP in favor of the genuine progress indicator (GPI) or gross national happiness (GNH) measures. But most policy makers are likely to remain latecomers to admitting the truth.
From a policy standpoint,” Heinberg says, “climate change is effectively an energy issue, since reducing carbon emissions will require a nearly complete revamping of our energy systems. Energy is, by definition, humanity’s most basic source of power, and since politics is a contest over power (albeit social power), it shouldn’t be surprising that energy is politically contested. As energy issues become more critically important to society’s economic and ecological survival, they become more politically contested; and as a result tend to become obscured by a fog of exaggeration, half-truth, omission, and prevarication. You can often find research that supports your beliefs, even if the studies you’re citing are highly misleading.”
Heinberg tackles consumerism next, saying that “humans – like all other animals – are consumers in the most basic sense, in that we must eat to live. Further, we’ve been making weapons, ornaments, clothing, utensils, and other items for tens of thousands of years, and commerce has been with us almost as long. What’s new is the project of organizing an entire society around the necessity for ever-increasing rates of personal consumption. Consumerism arose from a unique historic milieu. In the early 20th century, a temporary abundance of cheap, concentrated, storable, and portable energy in the form of fossil fuels enabled a dramatic increase in the rate and scope of resource extraction via powered mining equipment, chain saws, tractors, powered fishing boats, and more. Coupled with powered assembly lines and the use of petrochemicals, cheap fossil energy also permitted a vast expansion in the manufacture of a widening array of commercial products. This resulted in a serious economic problem known as overproduction (too many goods chasing too few buyers), which would eventually contribute to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Industrialists found a solution: advertising. As social historian Stuart Ewen notes in Captains of Consciousness (1976), ‘Consumerism, the mass participation in the values of the mass-industrial market emerged in the 1920s not as a smooth progression from earlier and less developed patterns of consumption, but rather as an aggressive device of corporate survival.’ In a later book, PR! (1996), Ewen recounts how, during the 1930s, the US-based National Association of Manufacturers enlisted a team of advertisers, marketers, and psychologists to formulate a strategy to counter government efforts to plan and manage the economy in the wake of the Depression. They proposed a massive, ongoing ad campaign to equate consumerism with “The American Way.” Progress would henceforth be framed entirely in economic terms, as the fruit of manufacturers’ ingenuity. Americans were to be referred to in public discourse as consumers, and were to be reminded at every opportunity of their duty to contribute to the economy by purchasing factory-made products, as directed by increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous advertising cues.
While advertising was an essential prop to consumerism, by itself it was incapable of stoking sufficient demand to soak up all the goods rolling off assembly lines. In the early years of the last century Americans were accustomed to paying cash for their purchases. But then along came automobiles: not many people could afford to pay for one outright, yet nearly everybody wanted one. In addition to being talked into desiring more products, consumers had to be enabled to purchase more of them than they could immediately pay for; hence the widespread deployment of time payments and other forms of consumer credit. With credit, households could consume now and pay later. Consumers took on more debt, the financial industry mushroomed, and manufacturers sold more products.
Though consumerism began as a project organized by corporate America, government at all levels swiftly lent its support. When citizens spent more on consumer goods, sales tax and income tax revenues tended to swell. After World War II, government advocacy of increased consumer spending was formalized with the adoption of gross domestic product (GDP) as the nation’s primary measure of economic success, and with the increasing use of the term consumer by government agencies. By the 1950s, consumerism was thoroughly interwoven in the fabric of American society.
Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class saw mass production as a way to universalize the trappings of leisure so the owning class could engage workers in an endless pursuit of status symbols, thus deflecting their attention from society’s increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. A more crucial problem with consumerism has to do with resource limits. The consumer economy also produces an unending variety of wastes, of which water, air, and soil can absorb only so much before planetary life-support systems begin unraveling. A team of researchers at MIT began using a computer to model likely future scenarios ensuing from population expansion, consumption growth, and environmental decline. In the computer’s ‘standard run’ scenario, continued growth led to a global economic collapse in the mid-21st century. The project’s findings were documented in the pivotal 1972 book Limits to Growth, which received blistering reviews from mainstream economists but has since been vindicated by independent retrospective analysis.
Treating consumerism as though it were merely an individual proclivity rather than a complex, interdependent system with financial, governmental, and commercial components is both wrong and mostly ineffectual. The system of consumerism can only be altered or replaced through systemic action. This is hampered by the fact that consumerism has become self-reinforcing: those with significant roles in the system who try to rein it in get whacked, while those who help it expand get stroked. Nearly everybody wants an economy with more jobs and higher returns on investments, so for most people, the incentive to shut up and get with the program is overwhelming. The natural constraint to consumerism – fossil fuel depletion – may be well within sight. But since it dominates the economy (70% of US GDP comes from consumer spending), when it goes down the economy goes too. No one knows exactly when this train wreck will occur or precisely how bad it will be. But it’s possible to say with some confidence that it’ll manifest as an economic depression accompanied by a series of worsening environmental disasters and possibly wars and revolutions. Looking at what’s happened since the start of the global economic crisis in 2007, it’s likely the wreck’s already begun, though it’s happening in slow motion as the system fights to maintain itself.
Economic collapse has been averted so far by governments and central banks inserting fingers in financial dikes. The Federal Reserve’s been purchasing tens of billions of dollars in Treasury bonds each month, year after year, using money created out of thin air at the moment of purchase. This has enabled the federal government to borrow at low interest rates; it also props up the American financial industry. Indeed, virtually all of the Fed’s money has stayed within financial circles, a big reason,” Heinberg says, “why the richest Americans have gotten much richer in the past few years, while most regular folks are treading water at best. What has the too-big-to-fail, too-greedy-not-to financial system done with the Fed’s trillions in free money? Blown another stock market bubble and piled up more leveraged bets. No one knows when the latest bubble will pop, but when it does the ensuing crisis will likely be worse than that of 2008. Will central banks then be able to jam more fingers into the leaky levee?
It appears that, for now at least, Mother Earth herself is playing ‘The Hero of Haarlem’ – we’re currently in a cool Pacific Ocean cycle. There’s no way to know how long it will last – the previous Pacific cool phase, which started in the 1940s, continued for about 30 years. If the present cycle is of the same duration, in about 15 years much of the heat currently being dumped in deep oceans may begin instead to remain in the atmosphere. At that point we’ll likely see unprecedented rates of climate warming, and far worse episodes of extreme weather.
The fact that climate change is complex and nonlinear makes it hard to communicate the urgency of the problem. Meanwhile, most governments aren’t rapidly developing renewable energy and public transport infrastructure; instead, they’re spending their money on building more roads. The financial system isn’t being downsized and regulated; it’s being propped up and inflated. Fossil fuel use isn’t being discouraged with meaningful carbon taxes, except in a very few countries; instead, oil and gas industries are subsidized. The folks in charge will probably continue to buy as much time as they can, for as long as they can, even if doing so makes the situation worse in the long run.
Nature, central banks, and crafty drillers may yet conspire to maintain the appearance of normalcy in the eyes of at least some of the population even as the waters rise around our ankles. No collapse here, folks; just keep shopping. Still, everyone knows that America and the world will have to transition off of fossil fuels during this century. My colleagues at the Post Carbon Institute and I believe that delaying this transition is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Obviously, it prolongs the environmental impacts from fossil fuel production and combustion. But also, the process of building a renewable energy economy will take decades and require a tremendous amount of investment. If we don’t start soon enough, society will get caught in a trap of skyrocketing fuel prices and a collapsing economy, and won’t be in a position to fund needed work on alternative energy development.
Society will also need to solve some other basic problems: how to grow food sustainably without fossil fuel inputs and without eroding topsoil or drawing down increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water; how to support seven billion people (and counting) without depleting natural resources – including forests, fish, and finite stocks of minerals and metals; and how to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential function – reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects – in the context of an economy that’s stable or shrinking due to declining energy supplies.
The capacity of governments to maintain flows of money and goods will erode, and it will increasingly be up to households and communities to provide the basics for themselves while reducing their dependence upon, and vulnerability to, centralized systems of financial and governmental power. As the capacity of the government wanes, it can feel threatened by people trying to provide the basics for themselves and act to discourage or even criminalize them. This contest between traditional power elites and growing masses of disenfranchised poor and formerly middle-class people attempting to provide the necessities of life for themselves in the context of a shrinking economy is shaping up to be the fight of the century.
Civilizations are complex societies organized around cities; they obtain their food from agriculture (field crops), use writing and mathematics, and maintain full-time division of labor. They’re centralized, with people and resources constantly flowing from the hinterlands toward urban hubs. Thousands of cultures have flourished throughout the human past, but there have only been about 24 civilizations. And all except our current global industrial civilization (so far) have collapsed. As Joseph Tainter puts it in his book on the collapse of civilizations, ‘More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita.’ When available energy and resources are limited, a point comes when increasing investments become too costly and yield declining marginal returns. Even the maintenance of existing levels of complexity costs too much, and a general simplification and decentralization of society ensues – a process colloquially referred to as collapse.
Instead of increasing its complexity, therefore, society will – for the foreseeable future, and probably in fits and starts – be shedding complexity. General economic contraction has arguably already begun in Europe and the United States. The signs are everywhere: high unemployment levels, stagnating or declining energy consumption, and jittery markets. Increasingly, even in countries recently considered as good credit risks, the costs of preventing a collapse of the financial sector are being shifted to the general populace by way of austerity measures that result in economic contraction and general misery. A global popular uprising is the predictable result of governments’ cuts in social services, their efforts to shield wealthy investors from consequences of their own greed, and rising food and fuel prices. In recent years, recurring protests have erupted in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and North America. Widespread protest opens the opportunity for needed political and economic reforms, but it also leads to the prospect of bloody crackdowns and reduced social and political freedom.
When all else fails,” Heinberg says, “the local matrix of neighbors, family, and friends will offer our last refuge.” He advises national policy makers to consider “guaranteeing the basics of existence to the general public for as long as possible, at the same time promoting local production of essential goods, strengthening local social interconnectivity, and shoring up local economies.” He also recommends “promoting environmental protection and resource conservation, reducing reliance on fossil fuels in every way possible, stabilizing population levels, fostering sound governance (especially in terms of participation and transparency), and providing universal education in practical skills (gardening, cooking, bicycle repair, sewing, etc.) as well as in basic academic subjects (reading, math, science, critical thinking, and history). Finally, don’t succumb to the temptation to deploy military tactics against your own people as you feel your grip on power slipping; the process of decentralization is inexorable, so plan to facilitate it.”
Considering non-fossil energy sources again, Heinberg notes that “only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are big nuclear proponents. But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy, the devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 having scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Also, there’s still no good solution for storing radioactive waste even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. Finally, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.
Techno-Anthropocene proponents say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the integral fast reactor (IFR). Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they’re alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation. These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary ‘Pandora’s Promise,’ produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming. Critics say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the integral fast reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR only ‘transmutes,’ rather than eliminates, radioactive waste, the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions. David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, ‘To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain wishful thinking.’ Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there’s one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. We don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital or decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.
As the fracking boom unavoidably fails due to financial and geological constraints, a new energy regime will inevitably arise. It will almost surely be one mainly characterized by scarcity, but it will also eventually be dominated by renewable energy sources, whether solar panels or firewood. That effectively throws the door open to a range of governance possibilities. As mobility declines, smaller and more local governance systems will be more durable than empires and continent-spanning nation states. But will surviving regional and local governments end up looking like anarchist collectives or warlord compounds? Recent democratic innovations pioneered or implemented in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement hold out more than a glimmer of hope for the former. Anthropologist David Graeber argues that the failure of centralized governmental institutions can open the way for democratic self-organization; as evidence, he cites his own experience doing doctoral research in Madagascar villages where the state had ceased collecting taxes and providing police protection. Journalism professor Greg Downey, commenting on Graeber’s ideas, says he ‘saw something similar in the camps of the Movimento Sem Terra (the MST or Landless Movement) in Brazil. These roadside shanty camps attracted former sharecroppers, poor farmers whose small plots were drowned out by hydroelectric projects, and other refugees from severe restructuring in agriculture toward large-scale corporate farming. Activists and religious leaders helped these communities set up their own governments, make collective decisions, and eventually occupy sprawling ranches. The MST leveraged the land occupations to demand that the Brazilian government adhere to the country’s constitution, which called for agrarian reform, especially of large holdings that were the fruits of fraud. Community-based groups, including cooperatives formed by people with very little education, developed greater and greater ability to run their own lives, electing their own officials, holding marathon community meetings in which every member voted (even children), and, when they eventually gained land, often becoming thriving, tight-knit communities.’
Conservers, localizers, and de-growthers must hope that if the growth-as-usual bandwagon can’t be turned back with persuasion, its inevitable crash will occur in increments, so that they can seize each step-down in industrial output as an opportunity to demonstrate and promote the need for alternatives. Success will be defined in terms of minimizing human suffering and ecological disruption as we adapt toward a leaner existence.”
At this point in the book, Heinberg asks what globalization (which will decrease as fossil fuels become less available) “has done for you lately? Broadly defined, globalization can be said to have a long history. The Roman Empire, the post–1492 European age of conquest, the British Empire, and the massive expansion of international trade that started in the late 20th century each brought more long-distance communication, travel, and transport of goods. All of these projects resulted in an increase of wealth for elites in urban trading centers, and mounting costs borne by indigenous peoples and nonhuman species. The last of these four great projects, for which the term globalization was coined, has been by far the most intensive and extensive. It was driven by the convergence of key resources, developments, and inventions: cheap oil, satellite communications, container ships, computerized monitoring of inventories, the flourishing of multinational corporations, the proliferation of liberal trade treaties, and the emergence of transnational bodies such as the World Trade Organization. For economists, globalization made perfect sense. The doctrine of comparative advantage held that if low-wage workers in Shanghai can make widgets cheaper than unionized factory employees in Camden, New Jersey can, widget manufacturing should move to China. And, to a large extent, it did. Economists said everyone would eventually benefit, but casualties quickly mounted. Real wages for American workers stopped growing in the 1970s. Manufacturing towns throughout the Northeast and Midwest withered. Meanwhile, China began burning immense amounts of coal to make mountains of toys, furniture, clothing, tools, appliances, and consumer electronics, casting a pall of toxic fumes over its cities and increasing its greenhouse gas emissions to record-setting levels. In effect, the United States was importing cheap consumer goods while exporting jobs and pollution. In both China and the United States, levels of economic inequality soared.
In the first half of the 20th century,” Heinberg says, the economy of his region (Sonoma County in northern California) “was diverse and agriculture-based. Farmers and ranchers produced a variety of foods including wheat, hops, prunes, apples, eggs, milk, and beef. Building materials were sourced from nearby forests and quarries. Today the county banks on one significant product: wine, most of which is exported. Grapes have become an ecological blight on rural areas, where vineyards extend from horizon to horizon, crowding out ecologically diverse native oak woodlands. Wine leaves by the truckload, while everything else the people of Sonoma County need and use – much of it from China – arrives on the backs of eighteen-wheelers.
Northern California’s wealth, derived largely from globalization, draws people to live here. As a result, the area has some of the highest land prices and rents in the nation. That’s not a problem if you’re a high-flying tech baron or vintner; but if you work in the service industry, or are trying to make a living growing anything other than grapes, it’s tough to get by. Taking cost of living into account, California has the highest poverty rate in the country. The state is home to about 12% of the total US population, but a full third of US welfare recipients. Income inequality is higher here than in almost any other state, and it’s increasing fast: according to The Economist, in the last five years the number of Californians earning between $50,000 and $100,000 fell by almost 75,000, while income brackets above and below grew. Project these trends a couple of decades into the future and you arrive at some version of hell – a society that’s socially and ecologically ruined. A lot of Californians have already done that visualization exercise, which is what makes them want more local manufacturing jobs, more locally grown food, and stronger communities comprised of skilled, motivated, engaged, and decently paid people. But the argument for localism is actually much stronger than this: even if we desperately want cheap foreign-made goods and are happy to trade away economic equity and ecological sustainability in order to get them, globalization is a self-limiting game that’s nearly run its course due to quickly diminishing returns in the oil sector.
There is still a lot of oil left to extract and in all likelihood the world supply of transport fuel faces not a sudden shutoff but a decades-long tapering with ever-rising costs. Most people assume we’ll just gradually shift to different sources of energy to power transport,” Heinberg says, proceeding to demonstrate that there’s nothing “to shift to that will give us the same level of mobility. The petroleum industry proposes using natural gas more widely as a transport fuel, since shale gas (produced, like tight oil, via fracking) is currently plentiful and cheap. However, shale gas resources suffer from the same problems as tight oil – rapid per-well decline rates and limited numbers of profitable drilling sites. Electricity can power some transport, and there are more electric cars on the road today than ever before. But where will added electricity come from to keep electrified transport growing through midcentury? Some energy analysts favor the increased use of coal, using carbon capture and storage technology (CCS, often labeled “clean coal”). Yet everywhere it’s been proposed, CCS is being rejected as too costly. Without CCS, dealing with the climate crisis will require reducing global coal consumption nearly to zero by midcentury. Even if the world refuses to take climate protection seriously, there’s good evidence that economically minable world coal reserves have been substantially overestimated, so coal may not be able to keep the party going much longer anyway.
Wind and solar would help solve the climate crisis, and they’re renewable (though the machines used to capture energy from wind and sunlight are made from nonrenewable materials). But solar and wind have energy characteristics different from those of fossil fuels: they’re intermittent and seasonal, a problem that can be solved only with major investment in energy storage or long-distance transmission. While a few analysts claim that renewables alone can power America, grid operators in Germany and Spain have reported problems integrating increasing amounts of solar and wind electricity input. And electricity isn’t a complete transport solution even if we have enough of it. Electric airliners would be too heavy to fly even with a 40-fold increase in battery efficiency.
For the last couple of decades, energy futurists have touted the ‘hydrogen economy.’ Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger liked being photographed driving his hydrogen-powered Hummer and championed the ‘hydrogen highway,’ a chain of hydrogen-equipped filling stations to service H2-powered cars. Toyota plans to bring out a hydrogen car next year and promises to help build support infrastructure in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Yet, as of 2014, California has only nine publicly accessible hydrogen filling stations, compared to nearly ten thousand gas and diesel stations. The renewable energy transition isn’t happening remotely fast enough even here, let alone in the nation as a whole, to significantly limit climate impacts or forestall the economic consequences of oil depletion.”
Having demonstrated that we’ll soon lack the “energy to maintain transport systems at current scale,” Heinberg proposes that we “urgently shift transport modes so as to maximize per-ton, per-mile fuel efficiency. Ships are the most energy-efficient haulers, then trains; trucks are much less so, while airplanes are usually the least energy-efficient means of moving people and freight.
Solar and wind may not be able to replicate all the payoffs of fossil fuels, which are concentrated, available on demand, and ideal for fueling centralized grid systems and vehicles of all kinds. But what if society were to play to the strengths of these new energy sources rather than trying to force-fit them into systems designed for oil, coal, and gas? The result would likely be an energy economy that’s distributed, decentralized, and under local control. The trend – off-gridding – may already be quietly beginning, and if it were to become widespread, the ultimate outcome would be much lower overall energy consumption levels, with electricity use primarily occurring when intermittent energy is available.
Another technological development possibly leading to a happy local future,” according to Heinberg, “is 3-D printing. As applications of the technology expand, more products will be manufactured at their point of purchase or use. While per-unit production costs may be higher, reduced shipping and inventory expenditures will more than compensate. Supply chains of raw materials from mines to printer would be needed, and some environmentalists have legitimate concerns about the waste and toxics produced by these machines; still, studies suggest that overall materials and energy consumption would be less than with our current centralized, globalized systems of production and distribution.
A complementary bit of hopeful news from the technology world comes from farmer-physicist Marcin Jacubowski and colleagues, who have spent the past few years inventing the Global Village Construction Set—open-source blueprints that enable fabrication from locally available recycled materials of 50 key industrial machines, including tractors, wind turbines, bioplastic extruders, and 3-D printers. Jacubowski’s goal is to provide every community with access to the basic technology needed to maintain a comfortable, sustainable, locally self-sufficient existence. So far, only a few of the modular machines have been fully designed and prototyped, but Jacubowski’s project has attracted both investors and eager interns.
For solution-oriented localists, these hopeful developments coalesce into a vision of a nation of small producers living in thriving towns, and villages, with chickens in every backyard, solar panels on every roof, a 3-D printer on every desktop, and an open-sourced set of productive machinery in every neighborhood. In such a future, globalized communication (and hence cultural exchange) might persist, but without job losses and exported pollution.”
Addressing his concern that without reliable electricity, key cultural knowledge will be lost, Heinberg notes that “fewer books are now released in print versions and more in online or e-book formats. Most newspapers and magazines also publish their content online, with some completely jettisoning their print versions. Digitization has nearly completed its takeover of the motion picture, photography, and music industries as well, making the internet the primary delivery medium for visual and audio media.
Preservation of digitized knowledge can become a problem because of obsolescence (think floppy disks). Physical degradation is a threat as well, for both magnetic and laser-etched media. But, more important, the project of digitized cultural preservation depends on the reliable supply of electricity. When the power goes off, access to the internet goes down, and CDs, DVDs, and electronic devices become useless. Sculpture and architecture would persist, previous generations of sound and visual media might be decipherable, and books and collections of physical newspapers and magazines would fare reasonably well for a few decades, but in just a century or two the vast majority of our recently recorded knowledge would be gone or inaccessible.
What has to go wrong for the lights to go out? Failure to replace aging infrastructure. All knowledgeable observers agree that North America’s electricity grid system is overdue for a massive upgrade. The consequences of failure to invest tens of billions in new infrastructure will be more frequent and ever-longer blackouts and brownouts, perhaps leading to electricity rationing and a host of dire economic impacts. 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 an already strapped federal government would have to pay for most of the grid upgrade. The industry may also become unable to maintain sufficient supplies of fossil fuels for electricity generation. In my 2009 book Blackout, I discussed credible reports suggesting that US 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 problems with well productivity, limits to potential drilling locations, and low energy return on energy invested may render the new shale gas plays a flash in the pan, as I argued in my 2013 book Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. And, as discussed above, alternatives are unlikely to replace fossil fuels – it’ll take time and enormous amounts of investment capital to develop wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power on the necessary scale, and most of these alternatives are intermittent energy sources.
If scarce resources or other causes trigger a nuclear war, the electromagnetic pulse generated by the explosion of hydrogen bombs could fry the grid and the hundreds of millions of electrical devices plugged into it instantaneously, as could a strong solar flare or geomagnetic storm. When the largest recorded geomagnetic storm, the Carrington Event, occurred on September 1–2, 1859, telegraph wires in the United States and Europe lit up, in some cases shocking telegraph operators and causing fires. If an event of similar magnitude were to occur today, millions of electronic devices would be permanently damaged, along with the high-voltage transformers that maintain electricity grids. A similar-intensity solar eruption aimed at our planet will also inevitably occur at some point.
Finally, we live in a world that’s increasingly interconnected, in which the pursuit of economic efficiency has reduced overall resilience. In such a system, problems in one area have a way of creating more problems elsewhere. Difficulties with oil supply, for example, will impact the electricity system, since spare parts and fuel (especially 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. Natural disasters, sabotage, social breakdown, and economic collapse could have knock-on effects that would imperil continued, reliable delivery of electrical power. Increasingly, crises are becoming synergetic, already making supplies of power are problematic in 100 countries around the globe.
Generating electricity isn’t all that difficult in principle; people have been doing it since the 19th century. But generating it in large amounts, reliably, without both cheap energy inputs and secure availability of spare parts and investment capital for maintenance, poses an increasing challenge. Here in the United States the lights are unlikely to go out all at once for good any time soon. The most likely scenario would be a gradual increase in rolling blackouts and other forms of power rationing beginning a decade or two from now, with some regions better off than others. After another few years, unless governments and utilities could muster the needed effort, electricity might increasingly be seen as a luxury, reliable, ubiquitous, 24/7 power could a dim memory. If the challenges noted above aren’t addressed, many nations, including the United States, 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. Yet even distributed renewable energy systems and commercial-scale fuel cells (already being used as backups for major buildings) would be vulnerable to lack of spare parts and thus might leave communities without power for extended periods. While the internet is designed to survive if sections of the network are destroyed, the server farms that are its backbone require enormous amounts of electricity, as do the countless servers hosting private websites. Thus, even if your own forward-thinking neighborhood manages to stay powered 24/7 with solar panels and methane digesters, the servers that store years of your email correspondence, family photos, and financial records may dark and dead in buildings thousands of miles away” (a good reason to make your own backups on CDs or external hard drives).
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. Over the short term, if the power were to go out, loss of cultural knowledge wouldn’t be at the top of most people’s lists of concerns. And, of course, everyone lived without power until only a few generations ago, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide still do. One could argue that, post-blackout, there would be a period of adaptation, during which people would reformulate society and get on with their life in a manner similar to their 19th-century ancestors or the contemporary Amish. The problem with that picture is that we’ve come to rely on electrical power for so many things and have so completely let go of the knowledge, skills, and machinery that could enable us to live without it that the adaptive process might not go well. Survivors might not be able to attain a 19th-century way of life without spending years, decades, or perhaps even centuries reacquiring knowledge and skills and reinventing machinery. That’s why it’s important for the kinds of information people will need to be identified and preserved in a way that it will be accessible under extreme circumstances, to folks in widely scattered places. The conservation of essential cultural knowledge in non-digital form involves sorting and evaluating information for its usefulness to cultural survival 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?
We could redesign our economic, political, transport, health care, and food systems to be less brittle. But suggestions along those lines have been on the table for years and have been largely rejected because they don’t serve the interests of powerful groups that benefit from the status quo. Meanwhile the American populace seems incapable of raising an alarm or responding to one, consisting as it does of a large underclass that’s over-entertained but misinformed, and a much smaller over-class happy to tune out any evidence of the dire impacts of its activities. Since elites largely shape information flows, we’re caught up in a hyper-competitive and fearful moment, waiting for the penny to drop. Elites also often deliberately nurture an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality (via jingoistic patriotism, wedge issues, and racial resentments) to keep ordinary people from cooperating more to further their common interests. Revolution, after all, is in many respects a cooperative undertaking, and in order to forestall it rulers sometimes harness the cooperative spirit of the masses in going to war against a common foreign or domestic ‘enemy.’
The general outline of our needed cooperative evolutionary leap is clear: we must develop a heightened collective ability to conserve natural resources while minimizing our human impacts on environmental systems. In some respects this might turn out to be little more than an updating of traditional societies’ methods of managing common grazing or hunting lands. A renewed commons must also extend to include all renewable and nonrenewable resources, managed to bring extraction and harvest levels within the long-term ability of natural systems to recover and regenerate. At the same time, with energy flows declining due to the depletion of fossil fuels, current levels of economic inequality will become unsupportable, and adaptation will require us to find ways of leveling the playing field peaceably. Laying the groundwork for reorganization following the crisis phase requires building resilience into all our social structures and infrastructures.”
Heinberg notes that because we’ve been culturally set up to “compete for shards and scraps,” there will be “enormous potential for violence” during the crisis phase. “It’s no wonder that so many who sense the precariousness of our current situation have opted to become ‘preppers’ and survivalists. But things will go a lot better for us if, rather than stocking up on guns and canned goods, we spend our time getting to know our neighbors, learning how to facilitate effective meetings, and helping design resilient local food systems. Survival will depend on finding cooperative paths in which sacrifice is shared, the best of our collective achievements are preserved, and compassion is nurtured. It’s our ability to innovate socially and cooperate to increase our collective fitness that will determine whether we survive, and under what conditions, as we adapt to scarcity and reintegrate ourselves within ecosystems in the decades ahead.”
Here Heinberg refers to the work of American anthropologist Marvin Harris, who wrote that “human societies consist of three interrelated spheres: first, the infrastructure, which comprises a society’s relations to its environment, including its ways of getting food, energy, and materials; second, the structure, which comprises its economic, political, and social relations; and third, the superstructure – the ideas and symbols in its religions, arts, rituals, sports, and science. Truly radical societal change tends to be associated with shifts on all these levels, often beginning with changes in infrastructure. Societies change their infrastructure out of necessity (for example, due to depletion of resources) or opportunity (usually the increased availability of resources, made available perhaps by migration to new territory or by the adoption of a new technology).
Our own society is on the cusp of an enormous infrastructural transformation as
our still-new infrastructural regime based on fossil fuels winds down and climate change begins to warm the planet. Whether we dramatically curtail fossil fuel consumption to avert catastrophic climate change or not, our current infrastructure will be a casualty. Climate change and fossil fuel depletion will force us to change to different energy sources, giving up reliance on energy-dense and controllable coal, oil, and gas in favor of more diffuse and intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar. This will have enormous societal implications. While electric passenger cars running on power supplied by wind turbines and solar panels are feasible, electric airliners, container ships, and eighteen-wheel trucks aren’t. Distributed electricity generation from renewables, together with a decline in global shipping and air transport, will favor less globalized and more localized patterns of economic and political organization. The inevitable shift away from fossil fuels will also entail a substantial reduction in the amount of useful energy available to society. Wind and sunlight are abundant and free, but the technology used to capture energy from these ambient sources is made from nonrenewable minerals and metals, and the mining, manufacturing, and transport activities necessary for the production and installation of wind turbines and solar panels currently require oil.
The EROEI of fossil fuels has also been extremely high in comparison with that of energy sources previously available or available in the future. This was a major factor in reducing the need for agricultural field labor, which in turn drove urbanization and the growth of the middle class. Some renewable sources of energy offer a better EROEI than firewood or agricultural crops, but none can compare with coal, oil, and gas in their heyday. This suggests that the social consequences of the end of cheap fossil energy may include a partial re-ruralization of society and a shrinking of the middle class. With less useful energy available, the global economy will fail to grow, and will likely enter a sustained period of contraction, with increased energy efficiency hopefully cushioning some of the impact. With economies no longer growing, our current globally dominant neoliberal political-economic ideology will be increasingly be called into question and eventually overthrown.
An infrastructure shift is already underway, and the structure of society (economic and political systems) and its superstructure (ideologies) are about to be challenged as never before. The world’s dominant superpower, which attained its status during the 20th century at least partly because it was the home of the global oil industry, is now quickly losing diplomatic clout and military credibility as the result of a series of disastrous miscalculations and blunders, including its invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Coal-fueled China is becoming the world’s largest economy, though it and other second-tier nations (the UK, Germany, and Russia) are themselves beset with intractable and growing economic contradictions, pollution dilemmas, and resource limits.
Society’s superstructure is also subject to deepening rupture, with neoliberalism coming under increasing criticism, especially since 2008. A more subtle and pervasive superstructure to modern society, largely taken for granted and seldom named or discussed, is likewise under assault. Essayist John Michael Greer calls this ‘the civil religion of progress.’ The notion that ‘history has a direction, and has to make cumulative progress in that direction’ has been common to both capitalist and communist societies during the past century. What will happen to that ‘religious’ conviction as the economy shrinks, technology fails, population declines, and inventors fail to come up with ways of managing society’s multiplying crises? And what new faith will replace it? Greer suggests that it will be one that reconnects humanity with nature.
It’s fairly easy to identify elements of our society’s existing structure and superstructure that won’t work with the infrastructure toward which we appear to be headed. Consumerism and corporatism are two big ones, as these were 20th-century adaptations to cheap, abundant energy. Activist projects now underway that appear thoroughly aligned with the post-fossil fuel infrastructure toward which we’re headed include permaculture cooperatives, ecovillages, local food campaigns, and Transition Initiatives. Relevant new economic trends include the collaborative economy, the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, distributed production, P2P finance, and the open source and open knowledge movements. While some of the latter merely constitute new business models that appear to spring from web-based technologies and social media, their attractiveness may partly derive from a broadly shared cultural sense that the centralized systems of production and consumption characteristic of the 20th century are no longer viable, and must give way to more horizontal, distributed networks. The list of existing ideas and projects that could help society adapt in a post-fossil fuel era is long.”
The takeaway? Governments and mainstream societal institutions are failing and probably will continue to fail to adequately address the challenges of fossil fuel decline and climate change, but local communities can do much on their own to prepare. Knowledge-keepers who’ve stored valuable information in non-digital form will be essential members of these communities.
One key element that Heinberg doesn’t address in this book, is spirituality –except in a secondhand way via John Michael Greer, who isn’t specific on it. Spirituality, part of society’s ‘superstructure,’ is a crucial motivator and framing tool, meshing with “politics.” To be helpful in the context of the challenges we face (in my humble opinion), it must be a spirituality that values earthly life in all its forms, and sees each of these forms as equally valuable. Each human being is, thus, precious and deserving of care and respect. This implies not only a toleration of human diversity of all kinds, including diversity of opinion and belief that doesn’t harm others, but a reveling in it. Only on inherently spiritual principles such as these, I would submit, can we preserve life and make it a life worth living.