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Book Excerpt: Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Port-Carbon World

“Our fossil fuel inheritance is burned once and for all.”


We live in a time in which several “storms” are colliding, as in the book and movie The Perfect Storm: 

  • Resource depletion: From the standpoint of the global economy, probably the most immediate threat comes from he depletion of fossil fuels (both oil and, in North America and Britain, natural gas). But fresh water resources, wild oceanic fish stocks, phosphates (necessary for agriculture), and topsoil are also dwindling.
  • Continued population growth: While the rate of global population growth shows signs of slowing, the total reached six billion in 1998, and in the six years since that time we have added an additional 400 million humans – nearly the population of North America.
  • Declining per-capita food production: For nearly the entire 20th century, food production outpaced population growth. However, world grain harvest for the past five years reveal a frightening trend: it appears that the trajectory of per-capita grain production has leveled off and may be beginning to fall, probably for a variety of reasons (including loss of arable land to urbanization, fresh water shortages, and bad weather).
  • Global climate change and other signs of environmental degradation: The relatively stable, benign global climatic regime appears to be coming to an end, almost certainly as the result of a human-induced enhancement of the atmospheric greenhouse effect. If the world’s sea levels rise significantly, as they are predicted to do as a result of the partial melting of polar ice, many coastal cities would be inundated. Concerns are now being raised that cold, fresh water from melting Greenland glaciers may halt the Gulf Stream and plunge Europe and much of North America into a new ice age.
  • Unsustainable levels of US debt and a potential dollar collapse: Since World War II, the world has relied on the US dollar as the basis for monetary stability. Increasingly, the US has taken advantage of this situation by running up every-larger trade deficits and more foreign-financed government debt. The current level of American debt is unprecedented and unsustainable.
  • International political instability: The recent declaration by the US that it has a right to preemptive war, and its use of that “right” as a rationale for its invasion of Iraq, could potentially plunge international affairs into an era of lawlessness.

These problems are related to one another in complex, often mutually reinforcing ways. Taken together, they constitute the most severe challenge our species has ever faced. They represent not merely a likely culmination of human history, in their ongoing and potential environmental impacts, they also may collectively signal one of the most momentous events of geological time. 

We have already overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans – and have drawn down essential resources – to such an extent that some form of societal collapse (a substantial reduction in social complexity) is now inevitable. 

Historians will likely view the period from roughly 1800 to 2000 as the growth phase of industrial civilization, and the period from 2000 to 2100 or 2200 as its contraction or collapse phase. 

“We are in deep trouble, and it is essential that we understand the nature of the trouble we are in.”

 The four principal options available to industrial societies during the next few decades are: 

Last One Standing – The path of competition for remaining resources. If the leadership of the US continues with current policies, the next decades will be filled with war, economic crises, and environmental catastrophe. Resource depletion and population pressure are about to catch up with us, and no one is prepared. The political elites, especially in the US, are incapable of dealing with the situation. Their preferred “solution” is simply to commandeer other nations’ resources, using military force.

The worst-case scenario would be the general destruction of human civilization and most of the ecological life-support system of the planet. That is, of course, a breathtakingly alarming prospect. As such, we might prefer not to contemplate it – except for the fact that considerable evidence attests to its likelihood.  

The notion that resource scarcity often leads to increased competition is certainly well founded. This is general true among non-human animals, among which competition for diminishing resources typically leads to aggressive behaviour.  

Iraq is actually the nexus of several different kinds of conflict – between consuming nations (e.g., France and the US); between western industrial nations and “terrorist” groups; and – most obviously – between a powerful consuming nation and a weaker, troublesome, producing nation. 

Politicians may find it easier to persuade their constituents to fight a common enemy than to conserve and share.

War is always grim, but as resources become more scarce and valuable, as societies become more centralized and therefore more vulnerable, and as weaponry becomes more sophisticated and widely dispersed, warfare could become even more destructive that the case during the past century.  

By far the greatest concern for the future of warfare must be the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The US is conducting research into new types of nuclear weapons—bunker busters, small earth-penetrators, etc. Recent US administrations have enunciated a policy of nuclear first-strike.  

Chemical and biological weapons are of secondary concern, although new genetic engineering techniques may enable the creation of highly infectious and antibiotic-resistant “supergerms” cable of singling out specific ethnic groups.  

Additionally, the US has announced its intention to maintain clear military superiority to any potential rival (“full-spectrum dominance”), and is actively developing space-based weapons and supersonic drone aircraft capable of destroying targets anywhere on the planet at a moment’s notice. It is also developing an entirely new class of gamma-ray weapons that blur the critical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Powerdown – The path of cooperation, conservation, and sharing. The only realistic alternative to resource competition is a strategy that will require tremendous effort and economic sacrifice in order to reduce per-capita resource usage in wealthy countries, develop alternative energy sources, and humanely but systematically reduce the size of the human population over time.

Powerdown would mean a species-wide effort toward self-limitation. Some people are uncomfortable with the Powerdown scenario, precisely because it would threaten economic growth. The ethical case for continued economic growth is compelling if we ignore certain uncomfortable facts – that is, if we assume continued, uninterrupted resource streams. Once the processes and implications of resource depletion are understood, the moral ground for the pro-growth argument crumbles.

Whether we save ourselves and our planet because we are fundamentally selfish, or because we are genuinely altruistic and care deeply about other species or future generations is a question for biologists and philosophers. What is important is where we can and do undertake the cooperative efforts necessary to our survival.

In the early 1970s, the Club of Rome commissioned, from a MIT-based international team of researchers a study on the future of industrial society. Published as The Limits to Growth, in 1972, the book provoked a debate that is still going on.

Two updated volumes have appeared in the interim, using new statistics. By 1992, the authors had reached the conclusion that “overshoot [can] no longer be avoided through wise policy; it [is] already a reality; and their latest contribution [2004], they note that they “are much more pessimistic about the global future than we were in 1972. It is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the last 30 years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but half-hearted, response to the global ecological challenge.” 

It would be difficult to remove the growth imperative from modern economies without also changing national monetary systems. That is because currently most money is loaned into existence by banks and is thus based on debt, and implies a commitment on someone’s part to pay interest on the debt. If the economy does not grow, new money will not be created to pay interest on existing loans; many of those loans will thus be defaulted upon, and a crash will occur.

It will be necessary for national governments and large economic institutions not merely to cease promoting endless growth, but to implement systemic strategies for increasing inefficiency, and for transforming their agricultural and transportation infrastructure.

It will be necessary to introduce international mechanisms for the coordinated conservation and sharing of remaining resources, for the reduction of population levels, for disarmament, for conflict resolution and negotiation, and for the lessening of economic inequality between nations.  

To say that this would be the greatest challenge undertaken by the human species in history would be no overstatement.

Waiting for a Magic Elixir – Wishful thinking, false hopes, and denial. Most of us would like to see still another possibility – a painless transition in which market forces come to the rescue, making government intervention in the economy unnecessary. This rosy hope is extremely unrealistic, and serves primarily as a distraction from the hard work that will be required in order to avert violent competition and catastrophic collapse. 

Facile solutions merely draw our attention away from the problem too soon – and we’re often quite happy to have our attention so diverted. But then the problem just continues to fester and grow. Facile solutions are a form of denial.

We must not allow our excitement over partial answers to cause us to lose sight of the real dilemma that confronts us – which, ultimately, is the fact that there are simply too many of us using too many of Earth’s resources too quickly.

Our real problem is that we are trapped in a perpetual growth machine. As long as modern societies need economic growth I order to stave off collapse, we will continue to require ever more resources on a yearly basis from our already overtaxed earthly environment. But the Earth has limited resources; even renewable like resources like trees and rainfall are replenished only at a certain rate. The energy conundrum is thus intimately tied to the fact that we anticipate perpetual growth within a finite system.

Our predicament is not entirely reducible to the fact that we are now starting to run out of the cheap energy sources on which we have become dependent. The predicament is broader and deeper. The crisis we face is essentially a particularly nasty instance of the universal ecological dilemma of population pressure, resource depletion, and habitat destruction.

We have, at least temporarily, increased the human carrying capacity of our environment by hundreds of percent. But avoiding population pressure has predictably resulted in resource depletion and habitat disruption. While short-term carrying capacity has doubled, redoubled, and doubled yet again, it appears that we are in fact degrading the long-term carrying capacity of our environment to a level far below its status at the time we began the exercise.

Every time we humans have found a way to harvest a dramatically increased amount of food or fuel form the environment, we have been presented with a quantity of energy that is, if not entirely free, at least cheap and abundant relative to what we had previously. Each time, we have responded by increasing our population, and correspondingly, the load on the environmental systems that sustain us.

The same pattern plays out with other species whenever they discover a significant temporary food subsidy. The behaviour has been observed so many times, in so many species and human societies, that it really has to be considered a standard response.

If we refuse to power down, then nothing will help. After a while we will simply have no choice: we will compete for what is left (whether for oil, natural gas, water, or phosphates) or we will die. Plan Snooze simply leads us back to Plan War.

Building Lifeboats – The path of community solidarity and preservation. The fourth and final option begins with the assumption that industrial civilisation cannot be salvaged in anything like its present form, and that we are even now living through the early stages of disintegration.

  excerpt from: The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, by Richard Heinberg

The five strategies humans have adopted for capturing increasing amount of energy have permitted societies to grow in size, scope, and complexity. However, it is important to note that the ramp of history, rising upward from the simplest Paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands to the heights of globalized industrial civilization, has not been a smooth one. Many civilizations have expanded their scope and complexity dramatically, only to dissolve back into simpler forms of social organization.

The ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mayas, Greeks, Minoans, Mesopotamians, Harappans, and Chacoans provide a wealth of material for investigation. Why would a group of people intelligent enough to have built impressive temples, roads, and cities and organizing a far-flung empire suddenly lose the ability to maintain them?

The literature on the subject is voluminous and includes speculation on the causes of collapse ranging from class conflict to mismanagement. Undoubtedly, the best modern research on this subject was done by archaeologist Joseph Tainter, whose book 'The Collapse of Complex Societies' (1988) is now widely recognized as the standard work on the topic. In his book and related essays, Tainter takes an ecological view of society as an energy-processing structure and concludes that complex societies tend to collapse because their strategies for energy capture are subject to the law of diminishing returns.

More complex societies are more costly to maintain than simpler ones.

Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the present illustrates the theory in a somewhat different way as it has recovered and undergone at least two even greater growth surges due to its ability to find and exploit new energy subsidies at critical moments.

The discovery of fossil fuels, the greatest energy subsidy ever known enabled the transformation of civilization itself into a form never before seen: industrialism.

This does not mean, however, that industrial civilization is immune to the law of diminishing returns. Over time, the amount of energy that must be expended to find and extract each barrel of oil, or to mine each ton of coal, increases.

Tainter ends his book by drawing the following sobering conclusion: “However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse.”


"Marion King Hubbert first announced in 1949, that the fossil-fuel era would prove to be very brief.

The life of industrial civilization will be a “horridly short” pulse lasting roughly 100 years (from 1930 to 2030), with its high point corresponding to the peak of global per-capita energy use - which occurred in 1979.

Hubbert immediately grasped the vast economic and social implications of this information. He understood the role of fossil fuels in the creation of the modern industrial world, and thus foresaw the wrenching transition that would likely occur following the peak in global extraction rates. In lectures and articles, starting in the 1950s, Hubbert outlined how society needed to change in order to prepare for a post-petroleum regime.

Hubbert was quoted as saying that we are in a “crisis in the evolution of human society.” You can only use oil once.

A possible scenario for the collapse of our own civilization might go something like this: Energy shortages commence in the second decade of the century, leading to economic turmoil, frequent and lengthening power blackouts, and general chaos. Over the course of several years, food production plummets, resulting in widespread famine, even in formerly wealthy countries. Wars – including civil wars – rage intermittently. Meanwhile ecological crisis also tears at the social fabric, with water shortage, rising sea levels, and severe storms wreaking further havoc.

One after another, central governments collapse. Empires devolve into nations; nations into smaller regional or tribal states. But each lower stage reaches its own moment of unsustainability and further collapse ensues. Between 2020 and 2100, the global population declines steeply, perhaps to fewer than one billion.

On the whole, countries where the population is already living with few energy inputs will probably be better off than those where per-capita energy usage is high.

At first thought, it might seem that the richest and most powerful people would have the best chance of weathering the events of the coming century.  However, wealth in and of itself will confer no guarantee of well-being. After a certain point, money is likely to lose value, and immediately useful goods will instead become the basis of trade.

These “new monks” would need… the practical arts of the growing and preservation of food, metalworking, the keeping of animals, the making and use of hand tools, the making of clothing, the building of houses, and so on.

It would be important to keep scientific knowledge about how ecosystems function, or about chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and geography. The survivors will have to establish seed banks to preserve the genetic heritage from millennia of bioregionally-adapted agriculture. 

Perhaps the single most important thing to conserve for future generations would be the moral lesson inherent in the growth and collapse of industrial civilization. Nature is teaching us once again.

None of this may happen, however, if groups do not begin now to invest in acquiring the skills and infrastructure necessary. The sooner we build our lifeboats, the better off we will be. 

There is no need to belabour the point: the people with the power to command armies, economies, and governments – have already made up their minds. For them, the coming decades will constitute a fatal game of Last One Standing, a brutal contest for the world’s remaining resources.

Even the nation that “wins” the game will be utterly devastated. In the end, oil, natural gas, and even coal will run out, and not even the wealthy will be able to maintain their current way of life.

The elites – corporate owners and managers, government officials, and military commanders – are people who have been selected for certain qualities: loyalty to the system, competitiveness, and hunger for power. They are people born to wealth and power, and raised to assume that privilege is their birthright. These people who identify with the system and the status quo; they are constitionally incapable of questioning its fundamental assumptions.

Moreover, the elites are guided day-to-day by a set of incentives that are built into the system itself. But the system carefully fosters some personality types and excludes others: assertive individuals who think concretely come to the fore, while creative dreamers fall by the wayside. 

Leaders are often good liars: they are people who have learned how to tell others what they want to hear. The best liars are able to convince themselves of the truth of what they are saying, so that, in their own minds, they are not lying at all.

Managers know that if they try to alter the basic parameters by which the system operates, the system will simply eject them. Leaders can make adjustments, but only minor ones.

And so we find ourselves in a social system that knows only how to grow, and that would rather violently explode than deliberately contract; and with leaders who have been selected precisely for their willingness and ability to carry out the system’s operating instructions, however ultimately self-destructive they may be.

For the leaders, there is only one possible solution: get that oil, whatever the cost.

The world’s environmental, anti-war, anti-globalization, and human rights organizations – the Movement – have a radically different view of the situation from that of the ruling elites. The Movement’s primary interest is in dispersing power and wealth, rather than further concentrating them; in preventing war and countering political repression; and in protecting the Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

The Movement has a blind spot, however: it cannot easily speak to resource and population issues.

The nub of the problem is this: The population issue is problematic from a human-rights perspective – the right to reproduce. By any reasonable assessment, the Earth has already exceeded its carrying capacity for humans: every basic means of life-support appears to be in the beginning stages of collapse. Much of the population is supported by industrial agriculture and the long-distance transportation of food and other resources from regions where they are abundant to places where they are scarce.

Just since 1998, we have added yet another 400 million to the total – nearly the population of North America. Where is the support system for these people? It is ludicrous to think of the world finding a North America’s worth of resources, and building a North America’s worth of support infrastructure every six years in order to support the human lives added through current rates of populations growth. Thus, more population growth just means more poverty, more misery.

Ultimately, ignoring the population issue will be a catastrophe for human rights, since population pressure is reliably one of the primary drivers of environmental destruction.

A mere “stabilization” of human numbers is no solution. Population reduction is hard to sell to the general public. People just don’t want to hear about it.

I am pounding on this point because it is not an incidental one. Population pressure and resource depletion are not side issues; they are the issues.  

Almost no one speaks frankly about the crisis ahead of us. 

The Movement largely ignores the core dilemma facing humanity because it has no politically agreeable solution for it. The elites have no solution either, but they do have a fallback strategy: competition, repression, and war. It is a terrible strategy, and someone needs to propose a workable alternative.  

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