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Thoughts on Richard Heinberg’s book "The End of Growth"

credit ©2012 Isaac Hernández/IsaacHernandez.com

How many books can you say the following about:

“If the thesis is true, every assumption we have taken for granted regarding what the future holds is wrong.”

Or, more to the point:

“If the thesis is true, my generation is, royally, screwed.”

I can’t think of many, but I did just read one, Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth.” The thesis of Heinberg’s book is fairly simple: we live on a finite planet, yet we have an economic system based upon infinite growth. Thus, at some point, when we have reached our limits of natural capital, growth as we know it will end. Richard Heinberg argues that that point is now.

Heinberg is no fool. He knows that prediction is a risky business. And, to his credit, he somewhat hedges his bets. He states the end of growth has begun now – we may witness a decade or more of relative growth, where inchoate nations achieve high levels of growth due to untapped resources in their surrounding areas, but traditional growth is, in Heinberg’s view, over.

Even though Heinberg remains positive and refrains from painting a bleak picture in detail, it’s easy to imagine degrowth unfolding violently. Debt-based financing, which is to say, all financing as we know it, could unwind in a global economic meltdown. Electric grids could fail. Food and energy systems could come to a hault. And all the other Mad Max scenarios you can imagine could, possibly, ensue. More resource wars. Mass starvation. The leveling off of the human population.

But, come to think of it, after suggesting those topics, I can now think of two other authors whose works contained theses that, if correct, would have radically disproven our preconceptions of the future: Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich. Indeed, Richard Heinberg’s thesis is not new; it simply has never been argued this convincingly.

Or, it’s quite possible that I was simply not around when those works were published, and that I hold predispositions for gloom that would have had me celebrating those books as well. Such is the argument young people face when reading ‘The End of Growth.’ Our lack of years on the planet makes it harder to confidently contextualize phenomena.

I agree with Heinberg’s thesis, and have for several years now. Yet predicting the timing of when the degrowth transition will occur is inherently difficult; acknowledging its inevitabilty, however, seems to me to be irrefutable. But more and more academics and researchers are starting to place a (relatively close) date on it. And that is terrifying. Our institutions have not prepared us in the slightest for this new, uncharted era.

I had my ‘aha moment’ while reading the 30-year update to the landmark publication of ‘The Limits of Growth.’ I was finishing up the conclusion of the book in a park on a sunny day in Santa Monica – and the conclusion was so striking the moment is still with me to this day. To summarize, the authors stated that their original 1972 findings were correct, and that furthermore they believed that the beginning stages of indefinite economic contraction were imminent. And they stated, in 2004, to check back with them in ten more years and see how the economy was doing. By the time I was reading the book, the ‘great recession’ had already begun.

Well, here we are in 2012, nearly ten years later, and the economy hasn’t ‘fully recovered’ by any stretch of the imagination. And as each year of poor economic forecasts passes by, as more well-researched books like Heinberg’s ‘The End of Growth’ are published, it’s hard not to conclude: this is the new normal.

Yet I’m still somewhat hesitant to stand up like Richard Heinberg and declare, this is it! Some will call that refusal denial, but it’s more complicated than that. I’m unwilling to make definite conclusions because I have done so in the past, and have been wrong. And I know that I am not alone in having made those mistakes before.

I remember looking out of the window of my dorm room during my freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin, taken aback and unprepared for the dominance of the Southern greek fraternity system. I spent most of my weekends in that dormitory, not straying far from my room, or my hall, staring out the window at social experiences I didn’t plan on joining, but did plan on judging.

I was bitter.

And perhaps that’s why my understanding of peak oil, climate change, and resource depletion in general became undoubtedly doomer. I looked out at the large SUV’s, driven by what I deemed to be incognizant aristocrats, knowing, just knowing for certain, that oil production would soon enter its inexorable decline. Just wait a few more years, I thought, and those SUV’s will be obsolete relics of extravagance.

Needless to say, SUV’s are still operational, and, I imagine, dominant on the west campus of the University of Texas. Liquid fuels will most likely surpass, if they haven’t already, 90 mbpd this year. When I switch my lights on in my studio, the electric current flows.

But does that misjudgment of timing really matter when discussing such important and defining issues?

Sounding the alarm early is far better than not sounding the alarm at all. In fact, those who do are the true pioneers of ecological conciousness. Heinberg may be early, or he may not be, yet he has engaged us all in a very necessary conversation, arguably the most important conversation my generation will have in our lifetimes.

For as the economy contracts, if we wish to retain our humanity and morality, we will need to place the blame upon ourselves, our consuming habits, and our overarching economic structures; and not, as has been done repeatedly throughout human history, on a vulnerable other who is prone to scapegoating. Degrowth, as Heinberg repeteadly states, can and should be a positive transition if we prepare correctly. But it will not be easy.

In Aesop’s fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’ the wolf does end up coming, and eating the damn sheep. Let’s not forget that. Heinberg has spotted the wolf roaming in the pasture. Whether or not it turns to eat the flock now, or later, is essentially irrelevant. Soon enough, it’s stomach will growl.

Editorial Notes: Calvin Sloan is a past contributor to Energy Bulletin. He writes: "I'm 24, from Los Angeles, currently live in Washington DC, and work for an advocacy organization. " Calvin has a YouTube page: Pursuit of Justice -BA

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