Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Once upon a time, Richard Heinberg was a mild-mannered college professor in northern California.  In 1998, he happened to read an article in Scientific American that revealed the peak oil theory.  A small clan in the lunatic fringe had been discussing the notion, but it was now being yanked out of the closet by a number of retired petroleum geologists — respectable experts having front line experience with an increasingly ominous reality.

Peak oil was terrifying.  The geologists were telling us that our way of life was racing toward the cliff.  Dignified ladies and gentlemen naturally swept it under the carpet, because the notion was certainly impossible in this age of techno-miracles.  Anyway, the anticipated calamity was still 20 or 30 years away, so there was no need to think about it.

In 2003, Heinberg published The Party’s Over, which explained peak oil to a general audience.  Since then, he’s made a career out of exposing the dark side of growth, progress, and other mischief.  Eventually, he left the university and joined the Post Carbon Institute.  His message is that resource depletion, climate change, and economic meltdown will blindside our way of life in this century.  He suggests that now is a great time to pay closer attention to reality.

Decades of explosive economic growth were only possible because of cheap and abundant energy, abundant high quality mineral resources, and highly productive oil-powered agriculture.  Today, the perpetual growth monster is kept on life support by pumping it up with trillions of dollars of debt.  Back in the 1960s, a dollar of debt boosted the GDP by a dollar.  By 2000, a dollar of debt boosted GDP by just 20 cents.  Today, the tsunami of debt is creating a new stock market bubble, and its collapse may be worse than the crash of 2008.  The notion that “growth is over” inspires the titans of finance leap from tall buildings.

Well-paid goon squads of spin-doctors are effectively conjuring doubts about peak oil.  What they don’t mention is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  A century ago, it took one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of petroleum.  The EROEI was 100:1.  Today, the EROEI of U.S. production has plummeted to 10:1.  Tar sands, oil shale, and biofuels all are less than 5:1.  Most fossil energy will be left in the ground forever, because of low or negative EROEI.  Imagine having a job that paid $100 a day, but the bridge toll for getting there was $105.

It’s already too late to cleverly pull the plug on climate change and live happily ever after.  Our current strategy, ignoring the problem and denying it exists, is the preferred policy of our glorious leaders.  It might be possible to soften the worst-case scenario if we reduced our fossil fuel consumption by 80 to 90 percent by 2050, a daunting challenge.  The transition to renewable energy will be turbulent, because of its numerous shortcomings.  For example, trucks, planes, and agriculture cannot run on electricity.  Many uses of oil have no substitute.

Welcome to the subject matter of Heinberg’s latest book, Afterburn.  We’re living in the final decades of a one-time freak-out in human history, the Great Burning.  For two centuries, we’ve been extracting and burning staggering amounts of sequestered carbon, for no good reason.  What were we thinking?  It’s nonrenewable, so using it as the core energy source for industrial civilization could only have a crappy ending.  For thousands of years, Arab herders traveled across regions containing oceans of oil, left it alone, and enjoyed a good life.  Self-destruction is not mandatory.

The book takes readers on an up-to-date tour of the unintended consequences of the Great Burning, and presents reasonable arguments for why it’s moving into the sunset phase.  The final chapters of Afterburn contemplate life after the burn.  What can intelligent people do to prepare for a way of life that will be far smaller, simpler, and slower?

In the 1930s, a Nazi control freak named Joseph Goebbels revolutionized mind control via high-tech propaganda.  This was made possible by the latest consumer fad, radio.  One person spoke, and millions listened, day after day.  Today, with the internet, and hundreds of TV channels, many millions are speaking at once, presenting a fantastic variety of viewpoints.  Truth (if any) can become a needle in the haystack.

Many huge ideas have been born in the lunatic fringe, presented by heretics like Galileo and Darwin.  At the same time, the fringe produces oceans of idiotic balderdash.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the mainstream world, where the one and only thing that matters is ongoing economic growth.  Other issues, like climate change and resource depletion, are nothing more than annoying distractions that must be stepped around.

Heinberg is interesting because he camps in the no-man’s-land between shameless mainstream disinformation and the wacko hysteria of the fringe.  He’s a likeable lad, and a clear writer who makes an effort to be respectful and fair-minded.  Until recently, it’s been compulsory for eco-writers to include hope and solutions, even if they’re daffy, because bummer books gather dust.  It’s encouraging to see an emerging trend, in which the emphasis on hopium is becoming unhip, and readers are served larger doses of uncomfortable facts with no sugar coating.

Afterburn includes small servings of magical thinking, but overall it lays the cards on the table.  A way of life can only be temporary if it is dependent on nonrenewable resources, or on consuming renewables at an unsustainable rate.  An economy requiring perpetual growth is insane.  Nature will fix our population excesses and eliminate overshoot.  The lights will go out.  All civilizations collapse.  Ours will too.  We won’t be rescued by miraculous paradigm shifts.  The biggest obstacle to intelligent change is human nature.  Folks with food, money, and a roof don’t worry about threats that are not immediate.  There is a possibility that humankind will no longer exist by the end of this century.  And so on.

Yes, things can look a little bleak, but don’t surrender to cynicism and give up.  We can’t chase away the storm, but we can do many things that make a difference.  Learn how to do practical stuff, like cook, sew, and garden.  Become less reliant on purchased goods and services.  Develop trusting relationships with your neighbors.

Today is a paradise for folks interested in changing the world.  Imagine cool visions of a new and improved future where we could nurture cooperation, eliminate inequality, mindfully manage population, and minimize environmental injuries.  Unfortunately, visioning is limited by the fact that the future is certain to be radically different.  What can we say for sure about 2050?  I remain stubbornly confident that there will be sun and moon, mountains and oceans, bacteria and insects.

When civilizations die, most or all of their cultural information also dies.  Today, much of this information is stored in electronic media, or printed on acidic paper that has a short lifespan.  Heinberg believes that it’s essential to protect our books, because they are vital for cultural survival.  He fears that the amazing achievements of the Great Burning will be forgotten.  “Will it all have been for nothing?”

A far better question is, “What cultural achievements would we want to be remembered by?”  During the Great Burning, we’ve learned so much about environmental history and human ecology.  We are coming to understand why almost every aspect of our way of life is unsustainable.  (Our schools should teach this!)  The most valuable gift we could give to new generations is a thorough understanding of the many things we’ve learned from our mistakes, and the mistakes of our ancestors.  They need a good map of the minefield.

Heinberg, Richard, Afterburn — Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2015.

The book’s introduction is HERE.  Two other reviews of Heinberg books are Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise and The End of Growth.


dharmagaian said...

Hi Rick, Thanks for the review. I agree with you about the 'real question', though it's hard to be hard on Heinberg, he has given so much of value during the last few decades.

Riversong said...

"They need a good map of the minefield."

There is an old Hassidic saying that a guide is merely one who has been lost in the wilderness long enough to point out which paths NOT to take.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Dharmagaian! I’ve been loosely following Heinberg since the modem era, when he was writing his Museletters. I’ve read five of his books. There were a few paragraphs in this book that annoyed me (like every other book does), but the overall quality of the message impressed me.

I suspect that many or most annoying things are driven by publishers, who are wary of printing stuff that is hopium-free or too challenging for suburbanites (not good for boosting sales). In our culture, I sense a strong “don’t scare the children” tendency, especially in education.

What Is Sustainable said...

Howdy Riversong! Yeah, some of our best teachers are those who show us how NOT to do it. Also, our own mistakes are rarely forgotten.

Anonymous said...

you might review mary summer rain- as she deals with the similar issues, but has managed to assemble stories in the carlos castanata style.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Anonymous. Mary Summer Rain is a writer with a dubious reputation. Thanks for the suggestion.

Mary Summer Rain