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Peak Oil: Sustainability with Teeth (2004 Peak Oil Conference)

First let me take this opportunity to express my great thanks to Pat Murphy, Faith Morgan, and Megan Quinn of Community Service, who have organized this conference so thoughtfully and successfully.

We have already heard a lot of talk this weekend, and I don’t want to tax us further with yet more information. I see in the program that I am supposed to speak on “Hope and Vision: Solutions for Planet Earth.” It seems to me that several other presenters have already given us plenty of hope and vision; I am not sure I have much to add in that regard. But perhaps I could take these few minutes to share with you some philosophical thoughts on the big picture—on our plight and our opportunity from a historical perspective.

We are, it seems to me, seeing the beginning of the end of industrial civilization.

That word civilization is a tricky one. We are trained to think of it as connoting everything refined, cultured, and secure. The alternative is barbarism, is it not?

Well, not necessarily—not, at least, from a historical or anthropological perspective.

For several years in the 1990s I was a member of an academic organization called the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, which, like most such outfits, holds yearly meetings at which professors entertain one another with their latest iterations of sometimes indecipherably subtle theories. The members of ISCSC, or “ISSY” as it is affectionately called, could never quite settle on a definition of the word civilization, but there was general agreement that civilizations are good and very worthy of comparative study. Thus the paper I read one year, “A Primitivist Critique of Civilization,” didn’t go over particularly well.

But while the word civilization may be hard even for experts to define, its derivation is clear enough; it comes from the Latin civis, meaning “city.” Civilized people are city builders. But this is hardly a complete or even useful definition; there are surely other factors involved, including writing, numeracy, trade, and a system of social classes. According even to these few criteria, there have been about 24 distinct civilizations in human history.

Now, I think we all have a clear sense that our particular civilization is qualitatively different from any other in history—from the Chacoan, for example, or the Mayan, or the Mesopotamian, or the classical Roman or Greek. Ours is the first, and will be the only, fossil-fueled civilization. It is civilization on steroids, civilization on multiple carafes of espresso, civilization on rocket fuel. We supersize it, and want it done yesterday. Consequently we have chewed up and spit out more of the Earth’s other resources more quickly than any group of humans have ever done.

Of course, civilizations produce wonderful cultural artifacts: pyramids, temples, literature, music, and so on. Perhaps because the American oil empire has grown up so quickly and rootlessly, its cultural products—though admittedly impressive in some ways (consider the modern Hollywood blockbuster movie with its multi-million-dollar special effects)—often have an ephemeral quality, a superficiality, and an emotionally manipulative commercial utilitarianism, that makes many of us less than proud.

Our buildings, clothes, utensils, containers, and tools—all aspects of our designed environment—have come to be shaped by fuel-fed machines rather than by human hands. If we can make them faster, or if we can make more of them more cheaply with machines, economics requires that we do so. As a result, we have become starved for beauty—the beauty of nature, and the beauty of careful, skilled, individual hand production rooted in slowly and painstakingly evolved culture that is itself rooted in a particular landscape. Perhaps we suffer unknowingly from an unrecognized mass disease—chronic, pernicious beauty deficiency.

One interesting thing to note about civilizations is that they have a nasty habit of collapsing. Many of them have come to their ends for similar reasons, and often the process of collapse has begun within only years of their reaching their maxima of geographical extent, military power, and accumulated wealth. Clive Ponting, in his marvelous book A Green History of the World, offers a familiar explanation: ancient societies typically drew down their resource base and destroyed their habitat. They cut too many trees, exhausted their topsoil, emptied their wells.

Joseph Tainter, in The Collapse of Complex Societies, provides a more subtle account. He attributes collapse to declining returns on investments in complexity. And he defines collapse itself as a reduction in social complexity. A flattening of the pyramidal class structure, a withdrawal of the imperial overreach, a rupturing of trade relations—all are symptoms of the involuntary simplification of a society.

Parenthetically, I should note that Tainter, who certainly respects indigenous cultures, is not saying that non-civilized societies aren’t complex in terms of their rituals and myths, or in their ecological understandings. He defines complexity in terms of quantifiable social elements like the number of distinctive tools and tool systems, or the number of social classes and occupations present.

Societies become complex in order to solve their problems. We adopted agriculture to make up for the caloric deficit consequent upon our overhunting of megafauna during the late Pleistocene. We irrigated so that we could practice agriculture in seasonally arid places. We built social hierarchies to allocate irrigation allowances from a single river to hundreds or thousands of individual farmers, or to store and distribute grain from seasonally abundant harvests.

At first, such investments in social and technological complexity may yield dizzying returns, and societies that make them often grow quickly and tend to overpower their neighbors. An empire may develop, and may persist for centuries or even millennia.

But the strategy of social complexification imposes hidden costs that gradually build up. The support population eventually tires under the burden.

Once the point of declining returns is reached, almost anything can push a society into decline. Climate change and other environmental disasters sometimes play a role. Typically, civilizations that are near their point of collapse become involved in wars over resources, and they are often plagued by poor leadership that is unable to understand the nature of the challenge or to propose effective responses.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Surely a civilization whose entire basis rests upon the extraction and use—and thus the depletion—of a few nonrenewable resources is the most vulnerable sort of civilization that has ever existed.

Most scientists I know who study these things have come to the conclusion that we are living at the end of the current empire, the first truly global empire in the history of our species. By “end” I don’t mean that the whole thing will come crashing down tomorrow or next year. Historically, collapses have usually occurred over a period of decades or centuries. In our case the signs of diminishing returns, and of overextension, are already unmistakable. And, perverse as the comment may seem, I don’t think collapse, in this instance, would necessarily be such a bad thing.

As Tainter points out, collapse really just means a return to the normal pattern of human life—life, that is, in tribes or villages; small communities, if you will. Collapse is an economizing process in which a society reverts to a level of complexity that is capable of being sustained.

This is all so easy to understand from an academically detached perspective. But of course we are not Martian anthropologists observing the events through a telescope; we are talking about the circumstances of our lives.

So what do you do if you are living at the end of an empire? I suppose one rational response would be to eat, drink, and be merry. Why not? It sure beats worrying oneself to death over events one can’t control, and thus squandering whatever moments of normalcy and chances for happiness may remain before the end comes.

Somehow, I think that you here have other ideas about what to do. I suspect that if you had been passengers on the Titanic, you would not have been drinking yourselves into a stupor at the bar; you’d have been strapping deck chairs together, finding a way to increase the signal strength of the ship’s radio, or invent waterproof buoyant suits that could be remanufactured from hemp ropes using equipment commandeered from the ship’s machine shop.

I probably can’t tell you anything you should be doing that you are not already doing about as well as you can under the circumstances. We all know the drill—grow more of your own food, conserve energy, become active in your local community, learn useful arts and skills, stock up on handtools. In essence: we must plant the seeds for what can and will survive; for a way of life as different from industrialism as the latter is from the medieval period; a way of life whose full flowering we ourselves may never see in our brief lifetimes.

Many of you have been teaching this stuff for decades; you don’t need a “how-to” lecture from me.

However it can be helpful to know that there are others thinking the same thoughts, grappling with the same challenges, and finding different but complementary strategies; and it seems to me that this conference has helped immeasurably in this regard. We know each other now, and we know that we are in this together. We know also that we have passed a few recent signal events and are approaching another very important one. It’s helpful to compare notes.

Somewhere this weekend I heard the inevitable comment that we are preaching to the choir. That’s not the way I look at it. To bend that metaphor, I feel as though in this moment I am addressing a council of preachers.

We have only a dwindling amount of time to build lifeboats—that is, the needed alternative infrastructure. It has been clear for at least 30 years what characteristics this should have—organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable. We have known for a long time that the status quo—a society that is machine-oriented, competitive, inequitable, fast-paced, globalized, monocultural, corporate-dominated—is deadening to the human spirit and ecologically unsustainable.

Sustainable. Unsustainable. What do these words really mean?

Perhaps peak oil at last provides the word sustainability with teeth. People now speak of “sustainable development,” “sustainable growth,” and “sustainable returns on investment.” That, my friends, is sustainability lite. The word has been diluted and denatured almost beyond recognition.

An understanding of peak oil provides us with a minimum definition of the word: can we do this, whatever it is we’re talking about, without fossil fuels? If we can, then it just might be a sustainable activity or process. There’s no guarantee: there are a lot of human activities that don’t involve fossil fuels and that are not sustainable—like large-scale whaling with sailing ships, or intensive irrigation agriculture in soil that isn’t properly drained.

But if you can’t do it without fossil fuels, by definition, it ain’t sustainable.

And that includes most of what we do in North America these days.

What we here are saying is that a transition to a lower level of social-technological complexity need not be violent, need not be chaotic, and need not entail the loss of the values and cultural achievements of which we are most proud as a society. And the end result could be far more humane, enjoyable, and satisfying than life currently is for citizens of this grandest of empires.

Even though this conference is spectacularly well attended from the standpoint of the expectations of the organizers, we are comparatively few. And the message we are communicating is not being heard by the great majority of our fellow citizens. It is probably optimistic to think that it will be understood by more than one or two or three percent of the population. However, if that seed nucleus of the total citizenry really gets it, we may have a chance. We all know what seeds are capable of.

I’m reminded of the Populist rural movement of the late 19th century, which altered America’s political landscape and very nearly diverted the US away from its imperial, corporatist destiny back toward the agrarian ideal of Jefferson. The Populists spread their word, starting in rural Texas, to nearly every county in the South, East, West, and Midwest. Their method? They trained 40,000 public speakers. Then, at grange halls, county fairs, and Chautauquas, they painstakingly educated their fellow citizens about the banking cartels, the trusts, and the currency system, and about how local communities could take charge of their own economies once again.

The 1898 presidential election proved to be the undoing of the movement: the Populists had decided to bet the farm on electoral politics and ran William Jennings Bryan, who was beaten by the arch-imperialist William McKinley, himself soon to die at the hand of an anarchist assassin.

We’ve just had an election too. And, unless it is contested, it may well mark the unequivocal end of the Republic, and of national electoral democracy in this country.

But just as it is becoming altogether clear that we are living in an empire, we are seeing clear signs that the empire is itself nearing its fate.

My friends, it is a time to be hopeful. It is a good time to cherish one another and embrace the young and fortify them with our experiences and vision, and to trust in their ability to find their own appropriate response to the events ahead.

There will be sustainable human cultures on this planet a century from now. In fact, that’s the only kind of cultures there will be. And I think we can reasonably hope that at least some of those cultures will be able to trace their lineage to the seemingly marginalized hippies, activists, energy geeks, permaculturists, communitarians, organic farmers, eco-city planners, and plain citizens who started educating their neighbors about peak oil early in the century.

We have done some good work already, but we have a lot more to accomplish. Perhaps we now have a better grasp of the context in which our work must continue, and of its crucial importance for the survival of our species.

May we apply ourselves with renewed confidence, commitment, and good humor. We can create beauty and live in beauty. We can live in joy, knowing that our efforts will sprout roots, trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. We can dwell in community, as we share each other’s lives and visions, talents and resources, concerns and needs, and learn to support one another and work together.

It is a scary time to be alive, but it is a wonderful time to be alive. It is good to know that there is so much accumulated intelligence and compassion among us. This has been a fabulous conference with extraordinary presenters and presentations, and even more amazing participants. We leave here with gifts of knowledge, encouragement, perspective, and passion. Thank you.

Editorial Notes: Richard Heinberg is the author of The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society, 2003) and Powerdown: Options and Actiosn for a Post-Carbon World (New Society, 2004). He publishes the Museletter and teaches at New College in Santa Rosa, California. Heinberg gave this talk as the concluding address of the first U.S. Conference on Peak Oil held in Yellow Springs, Ohio, November 12-14, 2004. The conference was sponsered by The Community Solution. -BA

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