Depending on which experts you talk to, the world’s production of petroleum either has already started to decline or will do so sometime within the next thirty years. The point at which the decline begins — which is also the highest point production will ever reach — is known as “peak oil.” Because worldwide oil shortages will follow the peak, concern about the issue is rapidly growing.
Richard Heinberg is the author of three books on peak oil. His latest, The Oil Depletion Protocol (New Society Publishers), outlines a plan to ease the planet’s transition from fossil fuels by decreasing production in advance of the peak. Listening to Heinberg rattle off statistics about extraction rates and renewable energy sources, you’d swear he was a geologist, but until eight years ago Heinberg was an established author of books about spirituality and ecology.
Born in 1950, Heinberg grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father, a high-school physics and chemistry teacher and later a quality-control chemist, inspired Heinberg’s interest in the scientific method. Heinberg also loved music, and in college he studied the violin. Having rejected his parents’ rigid Christian fundamentalism, he looked for spiritual alternatives. For a time he lived in Colorado’s Sunrise Ranch, an intentional community that served as the headquarters for an organization called “Emissaries of the Divine Light.” It was “a sort of benign cult,” he says.
In the late eighties Heinberg started reading the works of historian Lewis Mumford, who helped him understand the history of technology from an ecological and humanistic perspective. Another inspiration was M.K. Hubbard, the late geophysicist who accurately predicted the decline of U.S. oil production in 1970. Heinberg found a mentor in Colin J. Campbell, a British Petroleum geologist and godfather of the modern peak-oil movement. It was a 1998 Scientific American article Campbell coauthored, titled “The End of Cheap Oil,” that led Heinberg to begin digging into U.S. Department of Energy databases. Just five years later, Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society Publishers) became a bestseller.
The changes Heinberg advocates to address the impending decline in oil production are, by any standard, monumental, but he believes anything less will fail, and business as usual will result in catastrophe. The situation is not hopeless, however. In his book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (New Society Publishers), he writes, “We can preserve the best of what we have achieved, while at the same time easing our way as peacefully and equitably as possible back down the steep ramp of increasing scale and complexity our society has been climbing for the past couple of centuries.”
In addition to writing books, Heinberg has been covering global politics, religion, and the “origin of humanity’s antipathy toward nature” in his monthly MuseLetter (www.museletter.com). He also lectures nationally and internationally and teaches courses on energy, ecology, and sustainable communities at the progressive New College of California in San Francisco. And somehow he still manages to devote at least an hour a day to the violin, which he plays professionally.
Heinberg lives in Santa Rosa, California, in a home powered by solar panels, and drives a biodiesel car. He and his wife, Janet Barocco, a horticulturalist and massage therapist, tend a dozen garden beds and twenty-five fruit and nut trees. They have no children by choice.
I spoke to Heinberg last February at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz, California, just before he was scheduled to give a talk for the Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild. Though he is soft-spoken in person, his passion and eloquence are undeniable.
Cooper: You say that the problems caused by oil depletion will start not when we run out of oil, but when we reach peak global production. Why is that?
Heinberg: Because the peak is the point at which production starts to decline, and we’ve become so dependent on cheap, abundant fossil fuels — especially oil — that we’re not prepared to have less of them each year rather than more. Oil is the most energy-dense and convenient fuel to use. More than 90 percent of the world’s transportation is fueled by oil. In the United States it’s close to 100 percent. So we’re not talking about something that’s easy to replace. We’re using on the order of 85 million barrels a day worldwide.
Over the decades we’ve watched individual oil wells and fields go into terminal decline, and we’ve seen declining production in whole nations, starting with the U.S. in 1970. Since then around thirty other countries have gone into production decline. This will eventually occur for the world as a whole, though there is some dispute as to exactly when it will happen. Some say it already happened in 2005. Others say it won’t be until sometime in the 2030s. But everyone agrees it’s going to happen within most of our lifetimes.
Cooper: What’s your best estimate?
Heinberg: Within the next four years, based on the studies being done by people who are on the ground, surveying the oil fields themselves, and also on meta-analyses, such as the ones done by M.K. Hubbert, who understood the process of oil depletion before anyone else and correctly predicted the U.S. production peak. His prediction of the global oil peak was off, but only because he didn’t foresee the oil shocks of the 1970s and their effects on consumption.
Cooper: Why is the start of the decline such a problem? Won’t supplies taper off gradually?
Heinberg: The problem is that we have created an industrial economy based on growth. A certain percentage of growth is needed each year to stave off economic collapse. So once transportation becomes more expensive — and once it becomes clear that this is not just a temporary problem of supply and demand — it’s going to lead to panic. The relentless decline in availability of fuel will cause a crisis unlike any we’ve seen in the history of the industrial or information ages.
Cooper: You write in The Party’s Over that renewable energy sources cannot fully replace fossil fuels. How can you be so sure?
Heinberg: Well, first of all, I think we need to be investing much more in alternative energies. What I’m against is the blithe assumption that we can simply switch from oil to ethanol or hydrogen and continue with business as usual.
The Industrial Revolution came about because we went from using low-quality energy sources to more-concentrated, higher-quality sources: from wood to coal, and then from coal to oil; later we added natural gas and uranium. As we pass the peak of oil production, and then gas production, and then coal production — which will probably also happen in this century — we’ll be moving back down the ladder from high-quality energy sources to lower-quality energy sources. I think this can be done in a cooperative way, so that we will all be living in peaceful, productive communities, but it’s not going to be an easy transition. It’s going to mean cutting back on a lot of luxuries that we’ve gotten used to, such as cheap transportation and moving goods around the planet at great speeds.
Cooper: Sheikh Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister and founding architect of OPEC, once said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for lack of stones, and the oil age will end not for lack of oil.”
Heinberg: I disagree with what that statement implies: that the end of the Stone Age and the end of the oil age will be similar. The Stone Age ended in part because humans developed agriculture and harnessed animal energy. Any fundamental changes that we’ve experienced since then have involved harvesting more energy from the environment. Now we’re going to be extracting less energy, because no new source will give us as much bang for the buck as oil. So you can’t expect the two transitions to be the same.
Cooper: Do you agree with Vice President Dick Cheney that we can’t conserve our way out of this problem?
Heinberg: No, I think he’s dead wrong; I’m saying that we can’t replace our way out of it. We’re going to have to conserve our way out of it, because we don’t have any other choice.
Cooper: What about new oil discoveries?
Heinberg: I’m sure some great discoveries will be made. Everybody’s certainly assuming that they will. The problem is that the scale of new discoveries has been declining for the last forty years. Since the fifties we’ve been finding smaller and smaller fields. We did make some big discoveries in central Asia and Iran in 1999 and 2000, but even those are relatively small compared to what we were finding back in the first half of the twentieth century.
But suppose we found ten new Saudi Arabias — and the U.S. Geological Survey is assuming that we’ll discover several. Our consumption is still growing. Let’s say it’s growing at 3.5 percent a year; that means consumption will double in about forty years. So even if we make some enormous discoveries, we’re still going to reach a peak ten or twenty years from now.
Cooper: There’s a lot of talk these days about the Alberta tar sands in Canada as a new source of fossil fuel. Could that be part of the answer?
Heinberg: There was a 60 Minutes segment a while back touting the ability of the tar sands to meet our petroleum needs for decades to come. The problem is not the size of the resource, which is huge, nor the cost of extraction: you can produce a barrel of oil from the tar sands for around twenty-five dollars. The problem is the rate at which fuel can be extracted, which is relatively modest. We’re not talking about free-flowing liquid petroleum here. Currently we’re getting a million barrels a day from the tar sands — at an enormous ecological cost, by the way — and we need 20 million barrels a day in the U.S. alone. Oil companies operating in Alberta are hoping to ramp up production to maybe 4 million barrels a day by 2025 or 2030. That’s all well and good, but we need approximately 4 million barrels a day of new production capacity every year to make up for declining production in existing oil fields.
Cooper: What are some promising alternative energy sources?
Heinberg: Well, solar thermal is very promising. From an energy-payback perspective, it’s probably better than any current commercial solar technology. It works by focusing sunlight on a liquid and boiling it, then using the steam to turn a turbine or operate an engine.
There’s also microhydro, which is very good for rural areas that have a stream nearby. Of course, any kind of water power can be tapped irresponsibly, as we’re already doing with most of our big hydroelectric projects in this country.
Cooper: What about the promise of new, previously unimagined technology? Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that nanotechnology will allow us to integrate solar panels into common building materials.
Heinberg: Well, we’d better learn how to do it quick. [Laughter.] I think nanosolar is one of the more promising renewable technologies, but it’s probably going to be a while before it hits the market, and even after that, we’re talking about small-scale applications at first. It’s going to take two or three decades to reach full-scale implementation. Now, if we have two or three decades before global oil production peaks, then that’s not so bad, but if, as I and some others predict, the peak comes within four years, then it’s going to be too little too late.
Cooper: What about so-called “free energy” devices?
Heinberg: They’re also known as “perpetual-motion machines.” From a purely theoretical point of view, it’s interesting to speculate as to whether the “quantum sea” — an infinite sea of particles possessing energy — can be harnessed by some kind of quantum windmill, but most devices claiming to do this have been shown to be either hoaxes or the work of inventors who are deceiving themselves or don’t know how to measure energy very well.
Cooper: You’ve said we’re seeing the first phases of “societal collapse.” Can you elaborate?
Heinberg: I use the word collapse in the sense that anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter uses it in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. He defines collapse as a “reduction in complexity.” What we’ve seen over the past couple of hundred years is a rapid increase in the complexity of society, and that increase has been fueled by cheap, abundant energy sources. As those energy sources decline, I believe we’ll see our society become less complex.
Cooper: Isn’t an increase in complexity part of the evolution of natural systems, whatever they might be?
Heinberg: Yes, but there are thresholds, and when nature reaches a threshold, it remains in a stable condition for a long time. From the time you’re born until you’re twenty, you might grow an inch or more a year, but if you were to continue to grow at that rate your entire life, that would be a problem. [Laughter.] We assume that somehow our society can continue growing in complexity — and every other dimension — indefinitely. Obviously that can’t happen. For one thing, we’ll run out of resources: oil, water, topsoil.
We’re on the verge of an infrastructural shift as profound as any in human history, on the scale of the Industrial Revolution. You might say we’re going to be seeing the other side of that revolution, and it will change our political system, our ideologies, and our beliefs.
Cooper: What can we learn about civilizational collapse from the examples of the Romans and the Mayans?
Heinberg: In both of those instances collapse took some time: decades, at least, for the Mayans, and centuries for the Romans. So we shouldn’t assume that our own society will collapse overnight. And I don’t think it will be an entirely destructive process. It could be destructive, in a nuclear-war scenario, for example. But it’s also possible to imagine slower and more managed reductions in complexity that might just leave us better off. The Mayans’ old society was extremely hierarchical, and their leaders seem to have behaved pretty irrationally, judging by texts that are now being deciphered. An argument could be made that the Mayan people are better off having returned to life in small villages. They still have their language, culture, and ceremonies, but none of the trappings of a great civilization.
Cooper: In Powerdown you write about the need for “new monks.”
Heinberg: After the collapse of the Roman Empire, many monasteries took responsibility for preserving what was most valuable about Greco-Roman civilization. Irish monks played a key role in preserving many of the ancient texts that connect us to the classical world and the great authors of antiquity. If not for those monks, the collapse of the Roman Empire would have caused far more historical discontinuity than it actually did.
As we face collapse, we should be giving some thought to how we can preserve what’s most valuable about our society. Scientific findings, for example. We’ve discovered principles in physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and so on that I would hate to see lost. Yet most of this information is preserved on fragile, energy-dependent media such as magnetic tape, CDs, and non-acid-free paper. All of these media could be decayed or useless in a matter of decades, a couple of centuries at the most.
In ancient Egypt, they used papyrus to record information, but Egypt has a very hot and humid climate, and most of those papyri disintegrated. We know from the Greeks that the Egyptians had a highly developed mathematics, but all we have left are fragments showing everyday calculations. If we make the same mistake, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s up to us to decide what’s worth preserving and start doing it.
Cooper: Why did you title your book Powerdown?
Heinberg: It’s a term used for unplugging or turning off equipment. I’m using it metaphorically to apply to the whole society. We need to reduce the scale of our energy usage in order to reduce demand.
Cooper: Some readers were disappointed that you didn’t include a chapter on global consciousness change. Why didn’t you?
Heinberg: I agree that we need to change our consciousness, but I guess I’m impatient with the idea that we can change the world just by changing our thinking. Unless we also change our behavior, it’s pretty pointless.
Anthropology has shown that cultural change tends to start at the level of our relationship with the natural world, particularly how we get our food. That’s why we classify societies as “hunter-gatherer” or “agricultural.” Cultural change can happen also at the level of politics, ideology, or religion, but the really fundamental change starts with our relationship to the natural world. Some anthropologists call this the cultural “infrastructure,” as distinct from a society’s “structure” of politics and economics and its “superstructure” of ideology and religion.
We’re on the verge of an infrastructural shift as profound as any in human history, on the scale of the Industrial Revolution. You might say we’re going to be seeing the other side of that revolution, and it will change our political system, our ideologies, and our beliefs. The most important work we can do right now is at the level of infrastructure: finding new ways to meet our basic needs — particularly for food — in a sustainable way.
Cooper: You haven’t always been a science writer.
Heinberg: No, my first book was called Memories and Visions of Paradise (Quest Books). It was a look at mythology as a key to understanding the human psyche and our hunter-gatherer past. My next book was about solstice rituals.
Cooper: How did you get into peak oil?
Heinberg: I’ve always been interested in environmental issues and curious about the human condition. I actually became a writer in order to have an excuse for pursuing those interests. Freelance writing is a tough way to make a living, but it is a multidisciplinary path; I couldn’t have answered all my questions if I’d gone down the path of anthropology or environmental studies or political history alone.
I wrote a book, published in 1996, called A New Covenant with Nature (Quest Books), which looked at the origins of our disconnection from the natural world, going all the way back to hunter-gatherer times and then bringing the reader up through the history of cultural evolution. In that book I didn’t mention the words energy or oil; I was trying to write about the Industrial Revolution, but I overlooked these very basic factors.
A couple of years later I read Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrère’s article “The End of Cheap Oil” in Scientific American, and I slowly began to realize what I’d been missing: that energy is the essence of cultural evolution. If you have more energy, you can create a more complex society; with less energy available, you can’t support as high a level of complexity. Hunter-gatherers had access to extremely low-level energy sources — basically food and muscle power and fire for cooking and clearing land. Agriculture increased that. Sails and windmills and water mills increased it further, but nothing like the jump we got from fossil fuels. Oil and gas increased our ability to capture energy from the environment exponentially, enabling the invention of automobiles, computers, modern cities, and all the rest.
Cooper: Do you think it would have been better had the fossil-fuel revolution never happened?
Heinberg: Oh, yes, I think we’d all be much better off. We’ve gotten ourselves out on a limb that’s going to be very difficult to back down from. There are 6.5 billion people in the world. Most responsible agencies predict that by 2050 we’ll have more than 9 billion. It’s pretty clear that we’ve overshot the long-term carrying capacity of the planet for human beings. The only way we’re able to maintain the population we have now is by using fossil fuel to boost agricultural production and transport resources over ever-greater distances, all of which is unsustainable. We have what William Catton, author of Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, calls “phantom carrying capacity.” That’s carrying capacity that we can’t count on in the future. So backing off this limb is going to mean reducing our population and our per capita consumption rates.
Cooper: Is there a point in the past when it would have been good for us to slow down or not go to the next level?
Heinberg: Well, Europe has been overpopulated since the early medieval period. Most European colonization over the last five hundred years has been motivated by the need to export surplus population. So I suppose we’d all be better off right now if Europeans had adopted birth control and permaculture in the 1100s. [Laughter.]
Cooper: Would you say that, without industrialization, the population would not have reached its current level of 6.5 billion?
Heinberg: Yes, I think we would have had a global population of a billion or less.
Cooper: Overpopulation is not discussed much today, even by environmentalists. Why do you think that is?
Heinberg: For one thing, it’s hard to reverse the problem. A few European countries are seeing their populations decline, but globally the population is still growing by about 80 million a year, which means that we’re adding a billion people about every thirteen years.
The second reason is that it’s an unpopular subject. Everyone loves children, and if you talk about reducing the population, immediately people think you’re some sort of child-hater. But in fact, overpopulation is bad for children today and in the future. Population control is motivated by a desire to see future generations enjoy their existence.
The problem is that reproduction is a fundamental human right, so attempts to restrain population growth boil down to a conflict between human rights and human survival. As the writer Isaac Asimov once put it: If there are two people living in an apartment with two bathrooms, they can both use the bathroom whenever they want. There’s freedom of the bathroom. But if you have ten people living in an apartment with two bathrooms, then you have to sign up for time slots, knock first, and so on. No more freedom of the bathroom. This is a metaphor for the kind of basic trade-offs that we’re increasingly facing because of overpopulation.
Cooper: How do you think we will handle the psychological impact of going backward, so to speak? The idea of never-ending progress has been so ingrained in us.
Heinberg: Actually, the idea that progress is inevitable doesn’t go that far back. It’s mostly a European notion that got its start three or four hundred years ago. Certainly we’ve seen a pattern of more and spiffier technologies with each passing year since then, most of them now fossil-fuel driven.
The process of invention is not going to go away, of course, but we’re going to have to apply our ingenuity in a different direction. The advertising industry has trained us to equate progress with having more and better possessions. If the public-relations techniques currently devoted to persuading us that we need more possessions could be used instead to convince us that we have to change direction, we could see real progress. We basically need a World War II–level effort. During World War II, U.S. citizens were persuaded to participate in rationing of fuel, nylon stockings, automobile tires, and other things, because they knew that their survival was at stake. The government, the advertising industry, and the motion-picture industry all cooperated to support this pattern of behavior. That’s what we need now.
We live in a kind of bubble in this country. Delusion and denial are accepted as reality. But when you travel overseas and talk to people who aren’t in denial, it’s easier to be hopeful. That’s why I advise my college students to get out and do some international travel — while they still can. [Laughter.] It’s going to be a challenge everywhere, because we’re going to have to get rid of some ingrained habits. But I think it’s entirely doable.
That’s why I’m working so hard on what I call the “Oil Depletion Protocol.” It’s an agreement whereby oil-producing nations would decrease their scale of production — and oil-importing nations would reduce the scale of their imports — by 2.6 percent a year. I chose 2.6 percent because it’s equal to the global oil-depletion rate.
If we don’t enact the Oil Depletion Protocol, or a similar plan to reduce consumption, we’re going to see extreme price volatility once we pass the peak, and also extreme competition for the oil that can still be extracted. We’ll probably see a world war over control of oil fields. What the Oil Depletion Protocol would do is keep prices predictable. They would still be high, but relatively stable, so people, nations, and corporations could plan their economic futures.
Probably the best way to implement this domestically would be by some kind of rationing system in which people could trade rations, as economist David Fleming in Great Britain has suggested. Those who are more conservative in their use of energy would benefit financially by selling rations they weren’t using. Those who use more energy would end up paying more for extra quotas (in addition to the cost of the fuel itself), so there would be a gradual transfer of wealth from the energy guzzlers to the energy conservers. This would take place internationally as well, creating an impetus for nations to develop renewable energy sources.
If the public-relations techniques currently devoted to persuading us that we need more possessions could be used instead to convince us that we have to change direction, we could see real progress.
Cooper: You have proposed a connection between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and U.S. attempts to control petroleum resources.
Heinberg: We know, from internal discussions that were recorded at the time and have since been made public, that before 9/11 there was already a desire and intention on the part of this administration to invade Iraq. They needed a pretext, and 9/11 provided one. I personally feel that the events of 9/11 have not been properly investigated or explained by the government. I don’t know whether there was actual complicity by members of the U.S. government in those events, or whether they were aware of the impending attacks and permitted them to happen, or what really went on that day. But I think anyone who believes the official government story should do a little deeper digging.
Cooper: Can you paint a picture of what life might be like during the beginning of peak oil? How might our daily lives be affected?
Heinberg: Well, certainly people will be thinking about how much oil they’re using, and how they’re going to get to work, and where their food will come from, and how they’ll heat their homes. People will be doing a lot more bicycling and carpooling. Even hitchhiking could become socially acceptable. Cuba went through an energy famine in the 1990s, and traffic cops there halted cars with empty seats and made them wait for hitchhikers. Cubans also created more urban gardens, produced more of their own food, and made more public-transportation options available.
Cooper: What was the effect on the Cuban economy?
Heinberg: The energy famine did trash the Cuban economy — there’s no question. Our economy’s going to be trashed, too. Continuing to grow the economy using fossil fuels will not be an option. The question is: Are we going to deal with it in a cooperative way, or in a social-Darwinist way? Cuba chose the cooperative path and survived.
Cooper: Is it possible to have an economy that doesn’t grow?
Heinberg: Historically that was the norm up until the last two hundred years. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve created a type of economy that needs to grow, partly because, in our U.S. monetary system, money is literally loaned into existence by the Federal Reserve. (The system is not all that different in other countries.) The Federal Reserve makes loans to member banks so that they can make loans to commercial customers. So the money that we’re using represents debt, as well as promised interest on that debt. The only way that interest can be repaid is if the money supply continues to grow. A rate of 3 or 4 percent a year is considered “healthy growth.” If it slips below that, we have a recession, which means not enough new money is being created to pay back the interest on the existing loans, so people are defaulting on their loans. Money starts disappearing from the system, and it can result in a collapse of the economy such as occurred back in the 1930s during the Great Depression. To keep that from happening, we have to have continual growth.
Our society — like all societies — has the potential to collapse. . . . To think that a society can continue to grow in complexity and population indefinitely is, to me, cultlike thinking.
Cooper: In the January/February 2006 issue of World Watch magazine, Vaclav Smil, author of Energy at the Crossroads, writes, “The recent obsession with an imminent peak of oil extraction has all the marks of a catastrophist apocalyptic cult.” He goes on: “Unless we believe, preposterously, that human inventiveness and adaptability will cease the year the world reaches the peak annual output of conventional crude oil, we should see that milestone (whenever it comes) as a challenging opportunity rather than as a reason for cultlike worries and paralyzing concern.”
Heinberg: I have a tremendous regard for Vaclav Smil as a thinker and a historian of energy, but I was extremely disappointed in that article, because I thought it reflected a very shallow understanding of the issues. Like Smil, I advocate that we see this as a challenging opportunity, but I also think our society — like all societies — has the potential to collapse. In fact, as Tainter has shown, complex societies have a predictable tendency to collapse. To think that a society can continue to grow in complexity and population indefinitely is, to me, cultlike thinking.
We can’t continue moving toward greater complexity and resource consumption without hitting any fundamental limits. The majority of the population probably believes we can, but I would guess that a significant percentage — much larger than most of us might think — is actually aware of these limits and is concerned about them. When President Bush, in his State of the Union address, said, “America is addicted to oil,” and proposed reducing our reliance on imports from the Middle East by 75 percent within twenty years, there was an immediate positive response to that. Everyone I talked to was relieved that someone in power had finally stated the obvious.
Cooper: Did it surprise you when President Bush said that?
Heinberg: Not really, because I knew that he has access to information about peak oil from people like Matthew Simmons, an oil-industry insider and author of Twilight in the Desert. In fact, most Republicans like to talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. The problem, of course, is that President Bush had few programs to back up his talk. His administration has actually been reducing funding for most of the programs that he was touting. And the day after his speech, others in his own administration backpedaled quickly, saying that his target of 75 percent by 2025 was “purely an example.”
Cooper: Is there no one in our government who’s working on the problem of peak oil?
Heinberg: There are a few. In the House of Representatives a peak-oil caucus has formed around Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland and Tom Udall of New Mexico. Bartlett is a Republican and a social conservative, but he has a PhD in human physiology, so he’s not coming from a solely political or economic point of view. And some neoconservatives — such as former CIA director James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy — have gone on record saying that our reliance on imported fossil fuel is a fundamental vulnerability of the United States. In their view, we need to reduce that vulnerability for purely strategic reasons. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is also talking about our oil dependency as a security vulnerability, and he’s calling for a new “geo-green” movement to replace the old neocon one.
But overall, neither the Right nor the Left is doing much to solve the problem of resource depletion. The reflexive response of the Left is to say that fairness is paramount: if some people are well off, then everybody should be well off. The main problem, as the Left sees it, is distribution: we have to make sure everybody gets a fair share. Of course, that doesn’t address the problem of everyone having to make do with less.
And then the Right says we can’t mess with the individual’s freedom to accumulate wealth. Of course, that doesn’t address the problem either.
Cooper: At the local level, you’re attempting to create citizens’ groups to evaluate energy alternatives.
Heinberg: The idea is for cities and towns to make plans for dealing with reductions in oil availability. This is actually happening around the country, and the world. Kinsale, Ireland, was the first place to do it. A professor by the name of Rob Hopkins was working with his college students to create an energy-descent plan for Kinsale. Now the town council there has adopted the plan. Willets, California, went through the same process. My students at New College have worked with the city council of Sebastopol, California, to assess the city’s dependence on fossil fuels and develop a plan for reducing it. Within the next year, I predict we’ll see this phenomenon grow across the country.
Cooper: You’ve also said that we must create larger and more-powerful governmental bodies in order to address the global-scale problems we face.
Heinberg: I wouldn’t necessarily say we need larger governmental bodies, but we definitely need international agreements, like the Oil Depletion Protocol. We can’t afford to retreat into local, or even national, approaches to dealing with our problems. Yes, we must deal with them at the local and national levels, but a global problem requires global solutions.
Cooper: And the U.S. must lead the way?
Heinberg: The U.S. is definitely going to have to participate. If the U.S. were to lead the way, it could make all the difference.
Cooper: You do a lot of public speaking. How are people responding to your message?
Heinberg: People generally respond with worry and concern; a small portion respond with denial. A few are convinced they have the answer to the problem, whether it’s ethanol, or hemp, or nuclear power. People will talk about the tar sands or ask, “Won’t the market take care of it?” I once gave a talk at the economics department at Stanford, and there was one man who was just adamant that the market alone will solve this, because as prices go up, efficiency and research will become more attractive. But the Hirsch Report [an examination of the consequences of peak oil commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and published in February 2005] cuts that argument to shreds by showing that the price hike from scarcity will come ten to twenty years too late to be of any help.
As humans we’re hard-wired by evolution to respond to immediate threats, not long-term trends that, nevertheless, require immediate attention. Then, of course, we have our economic system, which prizes growth and avoids contraction at all costs. And we have political leaders who are, to a large extent, bought and sold by corporations and afraid to make courageous changes in course. In 1992, at the UN environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, people were saying we had a decade to turn things around. Even then, I think it was probably too late to avoid the serious impacts. And of course we became much more dependent on fossil fuels during the nineties. We’re way past the point where we could hope for a painless transition.
Cooper: When we do realize we’ve taken a wrong turn, will we be able to reverse our course?
Heinberg: I’m optimistic that we will, but I regard optimism as a strategic attitude rather than an attempt to predict outcomes. Realistically, we’re in for a very difficult time over the next few decades.