Peak Moment 115: Calm Before the Storm
Richard Heinberg, author of “Peak Everything”, reviews the accelerating events since mid-2007, including the credit crunch and fossil fuel price volatility, noting that we’ve missed most of the best opportunities to manage collapse. He asks, “how far down the staircase of complexity will our global civilization have to go until we’re sustainable?” His answer: when managed properly, with deliberate simplification, not as far as we might otherwise. In addition to long term efforts to relocalize our economies, he advocates developing community "resilience” to withstand short-term catastrophic events like food shortages or extreme weather. Noting that healthy fear can move us into action, he encourages an attitude of clarity, concern and informed action in this "calm before the storm" that he feels is soon coming to an end. [www.richardheinberg.com]
For a DVD of Richard’s presentation that evening for "Kiss Your Gas Goodbye", go to the Specials on Peak Moment’s homepage. Read Janaia’s blog entry about this conversation. Produced June 19, 2008. Episode 115.
Transcribed by Miranda Huey
Richard Heinberg: I think the watchword for the day is resilience. Resilience is the ability of a person, a community to withstand shocks. Clearly, there are some shocks on the way from peak oil, from the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble, from the possibility of further war in the Middle East, if there is an attack on Iran. We don't know when exactly the shocks will come, although its pretty clear that some, like higher oil prices, are basically happening right now. So, what can we do to make ourselves more resilient? Typically, resilience involves more redundancy. As we create these systems of just-on-time supply, that makes, actually, for more brittle systems. And if we have many food growers, for example, in a community, that community is much more resilient than if all of the food is coming on trucks from a food distributor several hundred miles away. So we have to think in those lines about everything that we need, whether it's healthcare, electricity, our water system, our waste management system. All of these basic systems within our community, how can we make them more diversified, more resilient, so that as the shocks come, we can manage them? It's not as though we can insulate ourselves completely from them, but the point is to be able to absorb the shock and recover and come back.
Announcer: This is Peak Moment. We are living at a peak of human innovation, information, wealth and health. But we're also at a peak of population and consumption, with rising temperatures and declining resources fueled by cheap oil and gas. Peak Moment Television, bringing you examples of positive responses to energy decline and climate change through local community action.
Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson and my guest today is Richard Heinberg, author of Powerdown and many other good books. Thank you for joining me.
RH: It's good to be with you, Janaia.
JD: Well, thank you for coming to our place, to Lone Bobcat Woods,and part of what's special about this is, these straw bales that we're sitting on, and our compost heap, was inspired by our conversation, our tour, actually, that we had with you and your partner Janet, a year ago, and your wonderful permaculture backyard. So I want to thank you. This is your inspiration.
JD: Well, we'll have compost. The other piece of that was that very day I taped a conversation with you in which we talked about peak oil, peak oil... At that point, you said, that was about May of '07. Here we are in June of '08. You said we've have four to five dollar a gallon gas, and it's now four and a quarter or more in California, with record-setting $139 a barrel yesterday. You said that we would see that biofuels are boondoggle and we've had food riots this year, partly because of our corn ethanol in America. We've also had a housing bubble burst, which you didn't, and some real economic fallout. Well, I wasn't expecting you to do that. And your book came out on Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. A lot has happened, and in fact, that is what you wrote in your newsletter for May. It's happening. Tell us your view of what's happening now, what we can be looking forward to for this next period of time.
RH: It's a little disconcerting and surreal to have been talking about all this for ten years and to have been writing about it for the last five or six years in a fairly prominent way and then seeing these things actually happen. When you're thinking it through and writing about it, saying, clearly global oil production's going to peak within a few years, that's logically going to have this effect and that effect and so on, it's all sort of mental and abstract, and now what we're seeing happen is not abstract at all. It's very real. The airline industry is consolidating quickly and airfares are climbing. We have officials within the airline industry saying, basically that it can't survive with oil at above $130 a barrel.
RH: Now, obviously, it will survive in some form. It's just not going to survive in the form with which we're familiar. We have truckers, independent truckers, going bankrupt because they can't afford the diesel fuel. Diesel rationing in China now. We could go on and on. These are real world effects that are impacting people's lives. I guess, just yesterday, the Head of the US Treasury said, “The US is not in a recession.” I was so reassured by that, because you could have fooled me. Everyone I talked to is saying, “I can't afford to do X anymore because I can't afford the fuel.”
JD: When I was at the grocery store and the man ahead of me said, “so they say the consumer price index inflation is only 2%,” and we all laughed because it's a fiction.
RH: Yeah, if you take food and fuel out of the equation, then you can juggle the figures to make them say whatever you want them to, basically.
JD: But everybody I know needs food and fuel.
RH: Right. So that's kind of where we are now, but it's a very volatile situation. So much has changed in the last year, as you were pointing out, and its the pace of change that seems to be accelerating.
JD: That's what I think. That's what it feels like.
RH: Yeah. If I were to make a similar forecast for the next year at this point, I'm afraid it wouldn't be a pretty one, because it seems as though the unfolding of the credit crunch from the bursting of the housing bubble has not reached its apex yet. We still have a lot of economic pain left to endure from that.
JD: And that's probably global. It's affecting not just the US.
RH: Right. It's definitely affecting Britain, Europe, and other countries to different extents. But certainly higher prices of food are affecting people in all countries, and of course the people who are in the poorest countries are being affected the most, and I don't see any good news on that front. All of the indicators that I see are the global food market is going to become even more pinched as the next two or three years unfold, and we will see even worse shortfalls for grains. And then with oil and natural gas and coal, the price of natural gas has just been on a steady upward climb. Oil is more volatile. The price of oil has gone up and down. I think that volatility will continue and increase. And even though there may besome speculation in the market, I think it's basically the fundamentals of supply and demand. Generally, I think the price of oil is going to keep going up and we may very well see $150, $200 a barrel oil within the next year.
JD: It's here.
JD: What kinds of things do you see people starting to do, actually? I'm going to step back a little bit on the lens. When you wrote A New Covenant With Nature, you talked about civilization and saw it as not a form of culture, but actually a disease of culture, which is real interesting connection. And here we are; is civilization unraveling in front of us?
RH: Well, the particular kind of civilization is certainly unraveling, and this is the apex, pinnacle of civilization that we enjoy today.
RH: Civilization is basically people living in cities and having things like writing and mathematics, and it's always based on agriculture. There have been something like fifteen thousand human cultures that anthropologists have been able to catalog directly or indirectly, and only about 22 or 24 civilizations, so civilizations are very, very rare in human history in comparison with culture. All humans have culture. But only a very small number of human societies have become “civilized”. And the reason for that is that civilization is a very energy intensive way of living on the planet.It requires lots more resources. There is a wonderful book published a number of years ago called The Imperial San Francisco by Gray Brechin, and it's a story of one city that all of us here in Northern California are very familiar with. And just the ecological cost of the construction and maintenance of this one city of San Francisco, and it's mind-boggling. Basically, the entire ecosystem in Northern California has been raped and pillaged to create San Francisco. Of course, this happened over decades and decades, but it's an ongoing process. Only now, the area that's drawn upon for those resources is much larger. It's not just Northern California, it's China and, it's on and on. But that's the process. That's the fundamental process of civilization.
JD: This civilization, at least, fueled by the cheap fossil fuels,has spread to a huge part of the planet, pooling resources from everywhere.
RH: It's one global civilization at this point. You can see that it has various nodes, London, New York, and so on, but it's a globalized civilization, for the first time in history.
JD: So, the collapse, because every civilization has collapsed, getting more simple, much more simple, because we're getting the environmental degradation and the overpopulation. We're in that collapse? Where are we in that?
RH: Clearly, this level of societal complexity cannot be sustained without fossil fuels. So it's just a question of how far down the staircase of complexity we will have to go before we can arrive at a place that is sustainable. If the collapse is managed properly, then I think we won't have to go as far down the staircase, probably, as we would go if we don't manage the collapse very well.
JD: What is managing the collapse? What might that look like? What can we do?
RH: Thinking ahead, realizing that we can't sustain this level of complexity without fossil fuels, and therefore planning for a deliberate process of simplification, relocalizing our economies, basically, is what it comes down to. Growing more of our own food. Building more renewable energy and infrastructure. All the things that we're familiar with and talk about all the time. Basically,those are parts of a big strategy for dealing with this problem.
JD: I think that there are folks that believe that we're going to have a crunch when the fossil fuels prices hit, when the decline is there, and that we'll have some bumpy times in here and that we'll have five, ten, whatever, twenty years down the road, other energy sources that take its place. What's your thought on that?
RH: It's problematic because ten or twenty years from now, we're going to have a lot less energy to work with from fossil fuels. We're looking at not only oil production peak but certainly regional gas declines and regional and global coal production peaking and beginning a decline. So, with less energy available, we'll be able to carry out less economic activity. We'll be wanting what economic activity can still happen, to support all of the expectations and needs of a growing population, and we won't have much investment capital or spare effort to put into building a whole new infrastructure of public transportation and millions of solar panels and wind turbines and so on, which will cost trillions of dollars. If we're going to do that kind of heavy lifting and heavy investment, we have to do it while we have a bit extra.
JD: Which means now.
RH: Basically, thirty years ago, is when we should have started. We don't have that luxury, so yes, now. We haven't a moment to waste.
JD: And I don't see anybody jumping on this. So we may get further down the steps than we want to.
RH: Right. We have missed most of the best opportunities to manage the collapse.
JD: So, here we are. What do we do now? You've spoken about communities building some resilience and some contingency plans. Talk to us about that idea.
RH: This is an essay I published a couple of months ago as a result of thinking about the kinds of efforts that are going on around the world to deal with peak oil and climate change. Most of them are proactive efforts looking at, okay, what kind of world do we want to have in fifty years? How do we backcast from that and get there through gradual steps? And that's all very important. We should be doing those things. We should be thinking now about how to make those next investments in public transportation, alternative energy, and soon, but meanwhile, there's a very strong likelihood that we will befacing some short-term catastrophic events from collapsing economies, bursting the housing bubble, peak oil, possibility of the US attack on Iran. What if that happens? Who knows? The point is, these sorts of short-term intents, catastrophic events, are not unlikely. They're more likely than not.
JD: Katrina tells us even that area as well, too.
RH: Right, events from climate change also. So, shouldn't we be planning for those kinds of events? And so what kind of planning would be helpful? So in that essay I suggested there probably already are, within almost any sizeable community, groups of people who are, and have been for a long time, trying to do things without fossil fuels, whether they think of it in those terms or not, whether it's organic food production or herbalism, which is a form of health care that isn't reliant on the giant pharmaceutical industries that are so fuel-dependent and so on. These folks need to be thinking about, how could they deploy their skills, their knowledge, on a much wider basis, over a short period of time? What would they need in order to accomplish that? They would obviously be needing to teach a lot more people how to do these things. They would need these materials and soon. We need to be able to support them in thinking those things through and making those services available in the situations of great need.
JD: My mind goes to everything from pumping water, some of which will still need some--
RH: Human waste, what do we do in that kind of situation? And of course, there are people who are thinking along those lines, but very few of them, and that knowledge needs to be available on a broader basis.
JD: The picture you paint with this, I'm thinking, makes me think of the smaller scale solutions, like humanure, like compost. And you're talking about using simpler tools. You're talking not about chainsaws but cutting saws and files, too, no?
RH: What if the grid goes down and we don't have oil? What do we do in that kind of situation? Obviously, it's an enormous challenge, but people lived that way, basically, until the last hundred years, so it can be done, but it's more helpful if we're prepared for it than if suddenly it happens and no one's prepared.
JD: Sure. The part that really appealed to me in what you said there is that notion that the idea that came to you from those folks in Cuba, who went through the peak oil crunch in the early '90's, when Russia collapsed. Having the folks who were working with permaculture came up out of the woodwork, they'd been working quietly, and suddenly were deployed to teach a lot of people how to do urban gardening and so on.
RH: Right. They'd been saying these sorts of things for years and years and no one listened to them. Instead, Cuban agriculture was the big state-owned farms, giant Soviet tractors. But when the crunch came, then they were able to basically redesign the Cuban food system. But if those people hadn't been there, if they hadn't had aplan, Cuba couldn't have survived.
JD: So it strikes me that what a community could be doing is at least starting with identifying who in our community has this knowledge and then how do we help them disseminate that knowledge. I think of the native people who knew how to forage off of this land 150 years ago, 200 years ago, many of those plants still being here, but would we know them? In an urban environment, I got to imagine it's got to be a tough, tough call.
RH: There are a lot of things to think through. We need both kinds of thinking going on simultaneously. The longer-term transition strategies and also the more short-term disaster management strategies.
JD: Disaster management also gets me thinking of things like our fire departments, our law enforcement, more of whom may be moving to hybrids, say, but there's still a lot of infrastructure that all that requires.
RH: If there's a good argument for biofuels, for example, I think it's for emergency vehicles. And also for farm equipment, even if the energy return or energy investment is low or even negative, you need the emergency vehicles, so in that case...
JD: That's a worthwhile investment.
JD: The thing that I think a lot of folks are saying, “if this is real.” I mean, I understand the feeling of surreal, is like, I read this three years ago and it's happening now. That was only three years, even ten. The food riots and so on. It feels like everything, the denial is still strong in the main institutions in our country. I don't see the financial folks saying, “The fundamentals of peak oil, of supply and demand, are really what's causing our economic woes.”
RH: The folks are looking for someone to blame. The economic pain is really starting to hit and there are definitely analysts out there who are pointing to the fundamentals of supply and demand, but politicians generally are more likely to look for villains. And of course, we've had the Congress now writing bills to punish OPEC and so on as though that's going to make any difference. The Democrats want to punish the oil companies and the Republicans want to drill all over the place.
JD: Drill all of our wilderness areas, yeah.
RH: The oil companies certainly have a lot to answer for, and they should be reinvesting their profits in renewables rather than fossil fuels, but making villains out of them isn't going to accomplish all that much.
JD: I think a lot of the viewers that we have on our Peak Moment shows are folks that are just at the family level, the personal level, thinking, okay, how do I, because, our culture has this thinking about ourselves that way, what can I even do? What I hear you're saying is put the pressure on. It's real, folks, it's not imagined anymore.
RH: I imagine people who are watching this are probably feeling a certain amount of fear. And there's healthy fear. If your house is on fire, and you're completely placid, there's something wrong with you. It's a useful emotion.
JD: It's certainly a motivator.
RH: Yes. I think realistically, now, we should be feeling some concern about the direction things are going and we need some adrenaline to get us moving in doing the things that we need to do to prepare personally, as communities, and so on. There is paralyzing fear that overwhelms us, and we have to get past that because it doesn't help, so, whatever we can do personally for ourselves to keep ourselves in a state of alertness and awareness and concern and action, that's what we need to do so there's a certain amount of personal attitude management that I think all of us need to do on a daily basis.
JD: To be debilitated doesn't help. The people who talk about loading up on their shotguns, it's like, that isn't going to help us move forward.
RH: There's another attitude I see, which is people who have been so put off by the direction things have been going for so long that they are somehow taking great pleasure in seeing it all fall apart and just kind of sitting back and taking a very cynical attitude toward it all and that doesn't help either. It doesn't help anybody.
JD: No, it delays. It doesn't help anybody, that's for sure.
RH: The fact is that, even though we've put off for far too long dealing proactively with the demands of this energy transition and as a result of that, almost certainly, we will see some pretty severe impacts from climate change, economic contraction, and so on. Nevertheless, what we do now will have an enormous difference on who survives, how many survive, how many other species survive, and ecosystems. So, we can't afford to give up or go into denial or cynicism. We really have to just maintain an attitude of clarity and concern and informed action.
JD: I guess the part that I loved in your book is the question, you said we can't avert catastrophe. What you said is: what it is is a matter of how much is torn apart, or how many of the other species also survive along with us. How much of the human detritus can we pool together and learn from this so we don't, hopefully, repeat this, generations down the road? And that we do that not because we know what the results will be.
RH: There are some folks who actually go so far as to hate our own species because of what we're doing to the planet and to each other. I would turn that around and say, “What are the qualities of us human beings that make us deserve to survive? Can we identify those qualities and exemplify them? And in that case, we win, no matter what. And I think those qualities are exactly the ones that will lead us to trying to help our community survive, saving a species, making a village sustainable. Those are exactly the kinds of activities that would make us worthy of survival in the future.
JD: Compassion, respect, caring, creativity. There's going to be a lot of creativity needed. A lot of community response needed. A lot of fixers and tinkerers.
RH: And we're amazingly adaptable, we human beings. We've been through a lot. And sometimes, when times get tough, we show the very best of ourselves. Sometimes not, sadly.
JD: That's one of my hopes, that people will pool together, as we have, at times, in the past. We have two minutes. I don't even have a question that I can think of.
RH: Well, it's good to be here in this forest, and to have quiet and bird sounds, because the human world is going through the beginnings of some very difficult times right now. In a sense, I feel there's the calm before the storm is just coming to an end, and you can hear the thunder on the horizon right now. So it's a good time to take in a breath and center ourselves and prepare.
JD: Thank you. I think it's time. And I think that a lot of people will take that healthy fear, I hope, and turn it around into appropriate action, get together with their neighbors, do what they can for themselves, and start thinking about the wider aspects of all of this. Thank you for joining us.
RH: My pleasure.
JD: You're watching Peak Moment: Community responses for a changing energy future. This may indeed be the peak moment. Thanks for watching. I'm Janaia Donaldson and my guest is Richard Heinberg.
Narrator: Peak Moment Television. Provided by Yuba Gals Independent Media. Produced by Janaia Donaldson. Directed by Robin Mallgren.
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