Review: Afterburn by Richard Heinberg

May 21, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedAfterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels
By Richard Heinberg
205 pp. New Society Publishers – Apr. 2015. $18.95.

Richard Heinberg’s studies into energy resources began with one of the grand, sweeping questions central to the archaeology profession: Why do human cultures change? “What,” he pondered, “causes one group of people to live in air-conditioned skyscrapers and shop at supermarkets, while another genetically similar group lives in bark huts and gathers wild foods?1 Heinberg discovered answers in the work of 20th-century anthropologist Marvin Harris, and particularly in Harris’ theory of cultural materialism. This theory says that societies are shaped primarily by the materials and conditions present in their environments, not by the ingenuity or ideas so often vaunted as drivers of change. This orientation toward the study of cultural change has, of course, been popularized in recent years by Jared Diamond, the celebrated author of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel. However, Heinberg tackled these issues earlier, more fearlessly and with due credit to Harris and his contemporaries (who somehow never made it into Diamond’s footnotes).

To Heinberg’s by-now formidable oeuvre of books on this subject, we can now add Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, a collection of insightful essays he’s written over the past several years. These pieces examine challenges and opportunities related to the modern world’s inevitable shift away from fossil fuels, a process well underway with the peaking of world oil production now 10 years behind us. In keeping with his cultural materialist sensibility, and as he has argued in seven previous books, Heinberg maintains that shifts in the availability of fossil energy will dictate the politics, economics and daily lives of people in coming decades. The title Afterburn is perfect. Following a two-century-long burning spree of unprecedented proportions, which Heinberg calls “The Great Burning,” our civilization does indeed face an afterburn like none experienced before.

The scale of our fossil fuel conflagration can perhaps best be grasped using two analogies made at the beginning of Afterburn. Heinberg observes that current global rates of coal, oil and natural gas combustion are the energy equivalent of burning one quarter of the Amazon rainforest each year. In America, the annual amount of burning is equivalent to the solar energy absorbed by all plant life, from trees to microscopic algae, across the entire nation. We give little thought to this inferno because it’s happening inside engines and power plants, not in the open where we can see it. Yet it is imperative that people come to appreciate the magnitude and significance of The Great Burning, since it is in the biosphere we all depend on that its consequences will be felt by present and future generations.

Heinberg, who has few peers in the art of distilling complex messages down to simple, easily understandable take-aways, gives this summation of our fossil fuel predicament: “it’s all about energy; renewables are the future; growth is over.” The first clause refers to the fact that energy is the single biggest issue confronting our species. It lies at the heart of industrial society’s resources crisis, as well as the greatest environmental threat that Homo sapiens has ever faced: climate change. The “renewables are the future” part signifies that we’ll be transitioning to renewables whether we like it or not. We’ll do so not because of some impulsion toward altruism or foresight, but because usable energy from fossil fuels will dwindle to nothing. Lastly, “growth is over” refers to the economic sea change now transpiring as cheap, plentiful oil—the lifeblood of economic growth as we’ve known it for generations—vanishes.

One of the best essays in Afterburn is “The Gross Society.” It laments the current fixation on gross, rather than net, numbers as metrics of how economies and energy reserves are faring. A case in point is our reliance on gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary gauge of economic health in industrial nations. Though GDP is good at measuring the amount of money in an economy, it ignores where that money goes and whether it improves people’s lives. Indeed, many things that boost GDP, from cancer to war to fossil fuel burning, harm people. GDP growth arising from such things is what economist Herman Daly terms “uneconomic growth,” or growth that contributes to, or reflects, a reduction in quality of life.

Another big reason for the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of economic well-being is that a growing GDP requires ever-increasing debt. Since debt can’t expand forever, neither can GDP. In fact, when one looks at figures for GDP returned on credit created over the past several decades, diminishing returns become readily apparent. The 40 years leading up to 2000 saw a five-fold decrease in the amount of money added to the economy for every new unit of credit produced. Heinberg reports that, as of his writing in April 2014, 2015 looks to be the point at which debt creation will stop bringing GDP growth in the United States.

Talk of a recovery in the American economy in recent years has been based on gross, as opposed to net, indicators. For instance, those who boast about the more than 12 million new jobs added since 2010 and unemployment being at its lowest since 2008 fail to mention that the new jobs generally pay less than the ones that were lost, and that unemployment numbers don’t include those who have stopped seeking work. A more telling statistic, says Heinberg, is that labor force participation rates are the lowest they’ve been in over 35 years.

Just as with the economy, most people delude themselves about America’s energy future with misleading gross numbers. They look at the surge in domestic oil and natural gas production over the past few years due to shale fracking and conclude that the energy crisis has been averted. But what’s missing from these statistics is a trend that couldn’t be of greater significance: the declining ratio of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). With world conventional oil production now having peaked and entered irreversible decline, the only sources of potential new production are unconventionals like tight oil from shale, which require far more energy to develop and thus give back much less net energy to society.

There’s a diagram in “The Gross Society” that is a powerful visual aid to Heinberg’s explanation of declining net energy. It’s a pyramid representing the world’s entire oil and natural gas endowment. At the top are conventional resources, the least plentiful but easiest to extract. Beneath these and taking up the bottom two-thirds of the pyramid are unconventionals, which are the most abundant but most difficult to produce. (Volume-wise, unconventionals make up much more than two-thirds, which is represented visually by the way the pyramid widens downward.) In keeping with the low-hanging fruit principle, 90 percent of current production comes from well above the halfway mark. Two lines labeled “Price/technological limit” and “Energy in equals energy out” are just a short distance further down and straddling the halfway point. Thus, for all the crowing about fantastic reserves of tar sands, oil shale and so forth, the fact is that these lower-quality hydrocarbons are typically energy sinks rather than energy sources. Their production would generally yield negative net energy, so it makes no sense to develop most of them.

Cultural materialism and what it means for today’s advocates for social change are the subject of a chapter titled “Want to Change the World? Read This First.” In this piece, Heinberg argues that vast opportunities exist for those seeking to be part of the great energy transition, but that making the most of them will require understanding how ecological circumstances shape the development of societies. For the things that ultimately determine whether social reforms succeed or fail are not powerful leaders and the bold new ideas they champion, but environmental factors like a favorable climate and the availability of crucial resources.

In the parlance of cultural materialism, profound societal changes tend to coincide with shifts in a society’s “infrastructure.” Anthropologist Marvin Harris conceptualized infrastructure as one of three fundamental components of any sociocultural system, the other two being structure and superstructure. Infrastructure can be thought of as a society’s “ways of getting food, energy, and materials,” to quote Heinberg’s paraphrasing of Harris’ theory. As for structure and superstructure, they consist, respectively, of the society’s “economic, political, and social relations” and its “symbolic and ideational aspects.” These last include religions, rituals, sports, arts, et cetera. Right now, industrial civilization is undergoing an infrastructural shift as the conditions of energy plentitude that allowed it to flourish wane. And as with the changes in infrastructure that heralded the beginning of industrialism in the late 1700s, as well as those that enabled the agricultural revolution 10 millennia before that, the new infrastructural transformation will once again be the primary driver of changes to structure and superstructure.

Since today’s young adults will have a vital role to play in the transition, it’s appropriate that Heinberg addresses them directly in Afterburn. He does so in a chapter consisting of his remarks to the graduating class of 2011 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. At the invitation of a student group thoroughly unhappy about having ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as their official speaker, he delivered an alternate address. His speech manages the admirable feat of conveying both the gravity of our crisis and the exciting opportunities to be had in meeting it. “[W]hat you choose to do in life could have far greater implications than you may currently realize,” he tells the new grads. Another virtue of his speech is the light it shines on ExxonMobil’s machinations to discredit climate science and give the false impression that the corporation is helping wean society off oil. Heinberg points out that ExxonMobil’s 10 million dollar-a-year investment in the Global Climate and Energy Project is equivalent to three hours’ worth of earnings for the company in 2010.

The premise of another fine essay in Afterburn is that environmentalists tend to decry consumerism without fully understanding what it is. For most people, “consumerism” is just one of those “verbal noises” about which peak oil author John Michael Greer has written so much, which serve only to evoke unthinking reactions. Thus, the story of its beginnings as a deliberate campaign hatched up by advertising and marketing firms in the wake of the Great Depression will be illuminating to many readers. The “happy alternative” to consumerism that Heinberg advocates is a “sufficiency economy,” or one focused on having enough rather than always having more and more of everything.

There’s a whole lot of meat (or perhaps jackfruit if you’re a vegetarian like Heinberg is) to Afterburn, and this review has barely sliced into it. Besides those already mentioned, other topics covered include the task of building local production infrastructure, the mendacious workings of climate change denial, the “awesome duty” of librarians to preserve cultural legacies for posterity and the new geological epoch—dubbed the Anthropocene—that many scientists believe has been brought about by human activity. Heinberg is unfailingly engaging and revealing in his handling of each of these subjects.

In conjunction with the release of Afterburn, Heinberg’s organization, Post Carbon Institute2, posted a series of three-to-six minute videos by him on the book’s main themes. They’re all excellently done, but my favorite is one discussing the law of diminishing returns as it pertains to societal complexity. In explaining the concept for uninitiated viewers, Heinberg uses the analogy of excessive coffee consumption and its effect on work productivity. He says that while one cup of espresso in the morning will help him get more done, three cups will make him "a wild-eyed nervous wreck,” thus bringing him to the point of "negative returns on espresso." It’s a terrifically relatable example given with Heinberg’s usual flair. This reviewer would just like to add that watching the videos and reading the book will bring decidedly positive returns in terms of understanding world issues and events.


1 Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Revised and Updated Edition (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2005), 2.
2 Heinberg serves as Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute (PCI).


Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: book review, energy descent