Show Notes

As exploitation of fossil fuels powered exponential growth in population and consumption, humanity began running into problems. Serious problems. The existential kind, like the potential for runaway global warming and the onset of the sixth mass extinction. For many problems, a solution exists, but what happens when a selected solution actually generates more problems? Energy and sustainability expert Richard Heinberg explains the difference between problems and dilemmas, and discusses how to escape our current climate dilemma. Sources of renewable energy have a major role to play, but we can’t rely on technofixes and business as usual. Real change will require shared sacrifice and wise decisions in the face of tradeoffs.

Transcript

Melody Travers
Welcome to Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. In this series, we explore the hidden driver behind the crises that are upending societies and disrupting the life support systems of the planet. That hidden driver is power, our pursuit of it, our overuse of it, and our abuse of it. I’m your host Melody Travers.

Rob Dietz
And I’m Rob Dietz, your copilot and Program Director at Post Carbon Institute. Join us as we explore power, and why giving it up just might save us.

Melody Travers
Last episode, we talked about fossil fuels and how they have given humans extraordinary powers over nature. And today, we’re going to look at some of the power dilemmas that we face, when human wielded physical power that overwhelms natural systems, as well as concentrated social power that threatens individual and collective wellbeing. These dilemmas are usually framed as technical problems that then require technical solutions. But I found this great quote from Eric Sevareid. And he said, the chief cause of problems is solutions. Basically, that techno fixes cannot always resolve power dilemmas. And that often when we’re on our way to solving a problem, we end up finding a new problem or creating a worse problem.

Rob Dietz
Well, yeah, the last thing we need is another solution, right?

Melody Travers
Well, they’re solving one thing in this narrow view. But then if you zoom out…

Rob Dietz
That’s right. So like when my arms hurting you don’t chop off the arm to stop the pain, right?

Melody Travers
Oh, I thought that was how you did it. That’s what I was always told when I stubbed my toe as a kid.

Melody Travers
Right? Yeah, the old parental thing: hit you in the head with a hammer so your toe stops hurting, right?

Melody Travers
Exactly, exactly. Well, speaking of being a kid, as I was thinking about that quote, I was reminded of this Malcolm in the Middle segment.

Rob Dietz
Wow, wait — you’re taking us back to what? 90 sitcoms?

Melody Travers
Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s a 90s sitcom. But it is like watching myself, do the thing that I do, so regularly. So basically, Hal, the father, comes home, flicks on the light switch, and the light bulb is out. So he goes to find a light bulb, but the shelf that it’s on is loose. So he looks for a screwdriver to tighten the shelf. But the drawer that the screwdriver is in is squeaking. So then he’s like, okay, well, I gotta go get the WD40. But that can is empty so then he gets in the car, but the car won’t start. So then he’s under the car, the whole engine is pulled out. And his wife comes home and asks, “Hi, honey?” Like, did he change the light bulb in the kitchen? And he gets up, and he’s like, “What does it look like I’m doing?!?” So anyway…

Rob Dietz
Yeah, spiraling cascade of solutions, right?

Melody Travers
Anyway, I feel like that all the time, where I find myself in a completely different part of the house, doing something completely different. And I can’t even remember what the first problem was.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, it’s the whole thing where your material possessions own you, rather than you own them. And you’re just going from one fix-it to the next.

Melody Travers
Yes, totally.

Rob Dietz
Well, as much as I appreciate Malcolm in the Middle and comedic spirals like that, I’ve been thinking of one for years and years, that has really kind of been a struggle in my mind. And it’s all around the story of Norman Borlaug. And I don’t know how familiar you are with him, but I got fascinated with him as a historical figure. And let me just give you the context of it. It’s in the 1960s. And you’ve got the specter of famine, as population has been increasing pretty quickly, but farm yields were stagnating. So along comes our character here. Stormin’ Norman Borlaug. And he’s this utterly remarkable plant scientist. And he’s studying wheat. And you know, when I tell you to think of wheat, I’m guessing you probably think of like, what? The amber waves of grain — these tall, beautiful golden stalks just blowing in the breeze.

Melody Travers
America!

Rob Dietz
That’s right. Yeah. Beautiful. So that was actually one of the problems with wheat, is it would grow so tall that it was in danger of being knocked down by the wind or the rain — too much. It’s a problem called lodging where your crop just falls down. So Borlaug took a job in Mexico and started working on different varieties of wheat and he came up with a semi dwarf variety, so it’s shorter, doesn’t lodge as easily. And it was also high yield and disease resistant. Now I just glossed over the heroic work he did. He did, you know, years of working it out.

Melody Travers
It’s science: bada bing, bada boom!

Rob Dietz
Magic happens and new strain of wheat. Yeah. So when you add to this new variety, synthetic fertilizer and irrigation techniques, and mechanization, you know, plowing with tractors and whatnot, you get what came to be known as the Green Revolution. Farm yields went way up, famine averted, and Dr. Borlaug even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work. Some say that he’s saved more lives than anyone else in history, from what he was able to accomplish. You ended up with people having a lot more at their disposal, you know? More energy from food, obviously, more power to do what they wanted to. Because you had this surplus of food, it granted us, as a whole population on Earth, quite a bit of breathing room or cushion. And the problem was rather than enjoy our breathing room or cushion is that we’ve grown our population and our consumption. So from 1970, the population was 3.7 billion, or thereabouts. And that’s more than doubled. Today, it’s 8 billion, and our consumption has gone up even more. The interesting thing is Borlaug kind of recognized this. He stated that humanity would lose the fight against hunger, and this is in his Nobel acceptance speech, he’s like, we’re gonna lose this fight, unless we can figure out how to limit our population size. And I wouldn’t leave it at that, I would say it’s more about throughput of energy and materials. And obviously, if there’s more of us, the tendency is to have more throughput of energy and materials. We could have limited ourselves, we could have not gone full speed ahead, but you know, that’s what we’ve done. And it’s an abuse of this power that Borlaug helped us create.

Melody Travers
I think that’s such a great example. Also, because population is something that we talk about from this really macro perspective. But as human individuals, we’re like, okay, do I have a child or not, right? It feels super personal. And at the same time, like last episode, we talked about the global human super organism. And on some level, we feel like we’re making these really individual choices. But we’ve got a larger framework that’s going on here — the way that we are seeing abundance, and being like, great, there’s always been more there’s just gonna be more and more and more and more, and I’m gonna get hungrier and hungrier and hungrier.

Rob Dietz
Well, of course, the thing that I think separates us from other species is that we can think about this stuff and, potentially at least, change our behavior on it. I mean, when a deer population finds excess food resources, it’s going to expand and probably not give it a whole lot of thought. It seems like humans have kind of done that too. But a lot of people along the way have been giving it thought, and hopefully, we can do some things differently and figure out how to not paint ourselves into the same corner that a deer population would paint itself into.

Melody Travers
What else are we doing here but trying to change the minds? This reminds me, living in Texas: highways are the main arteries of transportation. And there’s always new highway projects here. But there has been study after study after study that [says] as you build wider highways and bigger roads, it doesn’t actually improve traffic congestion. It just brings more cars. So this is something that has been thought about, has been studied, and yet I am literally watching my city build bigger, wider highways to solve this problem.

Rob Dietz
Another awesome air quotes “solution.” Put another lane on that highway. Make traffic worse, actually.

Melody Travers
Yeah, anyway, not to beat the dead horse, but the assumption with a solution too is that it’s going to be resolved right? It is going to go away, and that we are not going to have to sacrifice anything to make that problem go away. And the fact of the matter is, there’s just almost always tradeoffs to really resolve something. And that’s what makes it so freakin’ hard.

Rob Dietz
Well, it’s a very realistic way of looking at these big divergent problems. We have this issue, and we’re going to address it, but realizing there’s no simple, easy techno fix. If there were, everything would always be golden, you know? But you’ve got to look at what are the consequences of applying that fix? And what might we have to change going back further? In other words, let’s focus on the disease rather than on the symptoms of the disease. This whole notion of we’re overpowered — that’s probably the most important, biggest issue, right? And it ties right back to what I was talking about with Borlaug. Because we’re overpowered, our population — we’ve been able to increase — and of course, our throughput of energy and materials, which is what’s bringing us these symptoms of climate change and biodiversity loss and the other symptoms of that disease.

Melody Travers
Hi Richard.

Melody Travers
Hi Melody.

Melody Travers
How you doing today?

Richard Heinberg
I’m doing pretty well. And you?

Melody Travers
I’m doing very well, I was just talking with Rob about that great quote, the chief cause of problems is solutions. And it got us talking about times when a solution to one problem often led to another. And last episode, we were talking about these amazing capacities that fossil fuels have given us. But each amazing example seems to spiral into a new problem that had been inadvertently created. So it seems like after a couple of centuries of this super empowerment, we’re facing a lot of dilemmas. And so I wanted to talk to you about some of those key dilemmas that we’re facing today. And I thought we could start with the difference between a problem and a dilemma and why this kind of shift in framing is so important to understanding the issues that we’re facing.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, good question. Well, a problem typically can be solved with some effort. But without any kind of long term tradeoff or sacrifice. But a dilemma, on the other hand, can’t be solved without some kind of tradeoff or sacrifice, you have to choose between two things. And usually, they’re the negative things. And you have to choose, you know, which is the least negative option. But you can also have a positive dilemma, you know, two things you want, but you can’t have them both. So there you have to choose too. Unfortunately, most of the dilemmas that we’re facing in the 21st century are not positive dilemmas — they’re actually negative dilemmas. So that’s why I think it’s really important that we frame them as dilemmas instead of problems, because we tend to want to frame them all as problems. Like, you know, we can get out from under climate change and inequality and all these things with no cost. You know, everybody wins. But if that’s not really true, then we should be thinking differently about these things.

Melody Travers
You just brought up the biggest dilemma of this time, which is climate change, which is kind of a nexus of a lot of different issues, and they’re survival issues. And these huge environmental problems that human beings are facing, and some of them are technical issues, sure. But they also are social and political and economic problems. And so yeah, I was just wondering, how would you frame climate change as a dilemma rather than a problem?

Richard Heinberg
Well, the way it’s typically framed is, you know, we just chose the wrong energy sources, i.e., fossil fuels, and we should have chosen something else. But you know, realistically fossil fuels were this new energy source. There wasn’t something else immediately on the horizon that could have given us the same benefits as fossil fuels. So it was sort of inevitable that we would adopt them as soon as we had the technical capacity to do so. And as we saw last time, they gave us amazing advantages. So, you know, we’ve been using fire for hundreds of thousands of years. And fossil fuels gave us a way of using fire in more effective and efficient ways. So today, you know, we have billions of little fires that are doing things for us. Every time you, you start your car, if it’s a gasoline engine, there’s a little fire in there — actually, several little fires. And they’re highly efficient fires that are completely under control. But you add all those billions of little fires together, that are all doing things for us, giving us power -empowering us in various ways. And each of them is emitting CO2, and you add all of that up. And it turns out to be billions of tons of CO2 going into the atmosphere, and it’s changing the climate. It’s changing the chemistry of the oceans and imperiling life on Earth.

Melody Travers
You brought up a word that jumped out to me, which is efficiency, and that comes up in talks about transitioning to renewable energy, and trying to overcome these climate dilemmas — we just have to become more efficient. So I was wondering with the cost of energy emissions and this transition to renewables, what is the dilemma there? Can we just become more efficient and better and technologized? That’s not a word.

Richard Heinberg
Well, sure, energy efficiency is good. And we can help solve the problem by being more efficient. But ultimately, we just have to get off of fossil fuels. And that means an enormous investment in other ways of doing things. So if we try to do that, at the current scale at which we’re using energy, that means not just building tons and tons of solar panels and wind turbines, but also batteries, and different ways of using energy because only 20% of the energy we use currently is used in the form of electricity, so that other 80%, we would have to electrify or do something else with. So that means like transportation, electric cars, also, we’d have to build a heck of a lot of electric cars. What do we do with airplanes? Well, we need different airplanes, we don’t know exactly how we’d run them. And you go on and on and on — it’s basically replacing most of the infrastructure of modern society, which we spent the last century building. Okay, that’s gonna take energy to build all that stuff. It took a lot of energy to build the infrastructure we have. So where’s that energy going to come from? Well, most of it’s going to have to come from fossil fuels, because that’s 85% of current energy. So here’s the dilemma. In order to replace all this fossil fueled infrastructure, with renewable energy infrastructure, we will have to use a lot of energy, and that energy will cause emissions. So we’ll actually generate a pulse of carbon emissions in the effort to reduce our carbon emissions. And as far as I know, nobody has actually estimated exactly how big a pulse that will be. Because there are a lot of variables involved, but you can’t just wish it away. It’s going to happen. So the only way to avoid that pulse of emissions would be to actually reduce all the stuff we’re doing, you know, reduce the benefits from energy that we have learned to expect. And that’s a tradeoff. That’s a dilemma.

Melody Travers
What about the slow and steady approach? Like all the new cars, we’re not going to make gas guzzlers anymore. We’re going to have hybrids and then electric and, sure we’ll have the old cars, but as things age, as things move along, we’ll start slowly transitioning and grow the economy at the same time. Is that just totally not feasible?

Richard Heinberg
Well, unfortunately, it would be too slow. I mean, I have my own experience to go on. My wife Janet and I have been doing this for over a couple of decades now. We have solar panels on our roof that are now antiques and we’re actually in the process of replacing them because they’re so outmoded that you know, it just makes sense to get new ones. We have a solar hot water heater, we have solar cookers, solar food dryer. We have electric heating and cooling in the form of an air source heat pump or mini split system, and an electric car. So all of this together ended up costing us tens of thousands of dollars. Now, I’m glad we did it. I love living solar, I would never go back to a fuel based way of life. But is everybody going to be able to do this, even with government incentives? You know, it’s going to take time. And it’s going to cost money, and not everybody is going to be able to do it at the same pace or to the same degree. And there are other technical problems with the energy transition. And there’s something to be said about resource depletion in that regard, too.

Melody Travers
So the resource depletion part of it, as I understood it: there’s a tradeoff between power and sustainability, right? So as you were saying, if we do have that big pulse, we need to extract more fossil fuels and rare earth metals and lithium for batteries. There’s all these things that we need, right, to need less of them. Am I understanding that right?

Richard Heinberg
Well, sort of, I mean, you know, one of the things fossil fuels did for us was it made it easier for us to extract all the other resources. So mining of metals and minerals, and also renewable resources, like cutting down trees with fuel powered chainsaws was so much more efficient than doing it with hand axes and saws. So the rate of resource extraction has grown dramatically as a result of fossil fuels, we now extract 100 billion tons a year of stuff from the Earth. And that’s doubled. That rate has doubled in the last 25 years, thanks to economic growth. So we’re starting to see the symptoms of depletion of these things, including reduced ore quality. As you get the really good ores where, like with iron ore, magnetite is the best ore — it has a lot of iron in it. But there’s not much magnetite left, so now the companies that mine iron are targeting taconite, which has much less iron in it. So reduced ore quality is one of the symptoms. It takes more energy to extract the same amount of resources, and it produces more pollution. So all of this has a bearing on the energy transition, because building all of these solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and new industrial machines, is going to take a lot of minerals. And a lot of those are getting scarce already anyway, including stuff like copper. So is it even possible for us to do the energy transition at scale? And the answer is: it may not be. Some estimates suggest we might be able to build out the first generation of renewable energy technologies. But then what do we do after that starts to wear out like the solar panels on our roof that we put in 25 years ago? Well, we could recycle everything. But recycling is imperfect. It takes energy, and it’s polluting, and it’s not complete. So materials degrade as you cycle them. And there was one estimate by a French analyst that suggests that if we recycled everything, we might be able to have a renewable energy economy on the current scale of our economy that would last maybe 300 years. But that’s recycling everything, which we’re not even close to doing now. And we don’t even have practical ways of doing that. So, you know, it really doesn’t get us around the dilemma. Ultimately, we’re going to have to choose whether to have climate change and economic and ecological collapse on one hand, or a reduction in the rate at which we use energy and materials on the other.

Melody Travers
Great. Oh, wow. Um, you brought up a couple of things that just reminded me of some of our conversations, and one of those big discoveries for me, as an indecisive person: that moment where I realized that indecision was also a choice. Not choosing was inadvertently a choice as well, which just meant I was stuck wherever I was. But you brought up pollution and how even recycling doesn’t avoid pollution. And in your book, you talked about pollution as a power, and I’ve never really thought of it that way. Basically that those who pollute, the biggest polluters, are usually those that are engaging in some economic process to produce even something awesome, that they then create these byproducts and then insulate themselves from having to deal with them. And that polluters really rely on society as a whole to deal with them. But they don’t want to pay for it. They don’t want to deal with it and are just dumping things.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, basically, society as a whole and future generations especially, are subsidizing the polluters by taking care of the of the messes that they make. Economists have a word for this, they call it an externality, which is defined as like a side effect or consequence of commercial activity, that affects other parties without this effect being reflected in the cost of the goods or the services that are being provided. So there can be positive externalities too you know, I mean, there can be things that people do that benefit others that aren’t reflected in the prices, people pay. But usually it tends to be negative externalities, just because that’s a way of manufacturers increasing their profitability, and therefore their power. And in the US, we’ve seen a lot of pollution that’s been cleaned up over the last few decades, there used to be a river in Ohio that would regularly catch fire because it had so many chemicals in it. And that’s been mostly cleaned up, you know, some things have gotten better. But at the same time, we’ve become, especially in the last few years, much more aware of kinds of pollution that are really, really damaging, that are almost completely invisible, and could have just horrendous impacts over time. Sometimes these are called Forever chemicals. They’re almost all related to fossil fuels. There are lots of them, PCBs, flame retardants, phthalates, which are… well, vinyl is an example of a phthalate and, you know, vinyl is everywhere, in floor coverings, in paints, and it’s all around us. Pesticides — this stuff is all over the planet, you know? It’s been measured in snow in the Arctic and the Antarctic, it’s in the bodies of virtually every human being alive today, as well as all kinds of wild animals. And these chemicals are reducing fertility, they’re reducing sperm counts in males, they’re causing reproductive problems in women. And if you follow the charts out for a few decades, it’s possible that we could be creating a kind of biological holocaust where basically nothing can reproduce anymore. So what do we do to keep that from happening? Well, we’ve got to stop using all these chemicals. And it’s not just one chemical, yeah, but with all of these forever chemicals, it’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of government and industry. And in many cases, the substitutes are not going to be as fun to use or as easy to use or as cheap to use. So, you know, it’s going to be a big change, it’s going to be a tradeoff. It’s a dilemma.

Melody Travers
Something that you also said with the chemicals that is super scary to me is the lowering fertility rate. And there’s a lot in sustainability discussions about how there’s too many humans and population growth as helping economic growth, but also getting bigger, and we’re consuming more. But then also, you know, this idea of sinking fertility rates among ourselves and all the other plants and animals and flora and fauna, and all of that. That just seems like another huge power dilemma that’s coming up.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, yeah, population is really a complicated topic. And it’s an emotionally charged topic for a lot of people. But, you know, I think if we start by just admitting that population growth is a form of power, maybe that’s a way into the discussion where we can all agree. You know, a lot of religions say ‘be fruitful and multiply’, in effect, whether they use those words or not, they like their followers to have as many children as possible because if our religion has more people, then it’s a more powerful religion than some other religion. Like the Mormon church is a good example of this. The Mormon Church is not this 1,000 year old institution. It just started in the early 19th century with just a few 100 people. Now there are 15 million Mormons all over the world. That’s just 170 years. So you know, and here we are talking about the Mormons, right? If they hadn’t done that, you know, it just wouldn’t be a subject of conversation. So population growth is power. But then what happens if you have too many people, then you overuse resources and land, and everybody suffers in the end. And that’s why many environmentalists still talk about population, because after all, world population now, it’s 2022 we’re talking, and this year we’re hitting 8 billion. So human population was 1 billion when the industrial revolution started and 8 billion today. Is it going to be eight times 8 billion in 200 more years, so 64 billion? Nobody expects that to happen, because the population growth rate is declining. But also because nobody can make a believable case for how we could support 64 billion people. At some point, population growth has to peak and start to decline. And we’re seeing the signs of that already. My guess is we may see the population peak before 2050, maybe 2035, or something like that. And then we have declining population and the problems associated with that.

Melody Travers
Okay, if we have to deal with this dilemma, what are our choices? Do you foresee us really making a plan? Or is it just crisis? Are those the two options?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, we have made some efforts to reduce population growth rates. And when I say we, I mean humanity, as some countries much more than others, and they’ve been more or less coercive and more or less successful. We probably would have more than 8 billion today if we hadn’t made those efforts. But you know, there’s a question that nobody has really answered satisfactorily yet. Without fossil fuels, how many people are we going to be able to support? Fossil fuels that not only give us easy and cheap transportation and all that sort of thing, but also, our fertilizers are made from fossil fuels. High fertilizer prices are already a big factor in world hunger. It’s a huge problem. There’s no easy answer here. That’s why it’s a dilemma. We’re going to have to get used to population decline and find ways to make the best of it.

Melody Travers
Yeah, something I read about that I thought was really cool was a combination of an older folks home and daycare, because traditionally, larger families would all live together. And who would watch the kids? It was the grandparents, not the parents during the day, because they would be doing the work. So this was one example. And it had a lot of social and psychological benefits for the older folks, too, because they had a purpose that was helpful and fun, because kids are fun. Hopefully, there’s some ways that we can look into the past and see the way that human beings used to live. And right now, at least in the US, I feel like we’re such an ageist society. Each activity is by age, and you don’t see as many older folks around that bifurcation. It is definitely a negative thing. And maybe this could push us into something that’s more positive, integrating everyone in the population.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, maybe our listeners are getting bummed out right now, because we’re talking about all of these dilemmas. But the point in doing that is that, generally speaking, in our society, we avoid talking about these dilemmas. It’s not that there aren’t better ways of doing things, like you just pointed out, that could actually make life better for everybody, if we, you know, went down a certain path. But we’re not going to get there until we acknowledge what’s actually going on. So that’s what we’re doing now.

Melody Travers
Yeah. So one of the dilemmas that I wanted to talk about too is this economic inequality dilemma and wealth in general. We talked about the wealth pump and wealth as a self-reinforcing feedback loop, that wealth begets wealth, and everybody wants more money, more power. But we’ve also seen that even as everybody’s getting richer, there’s still people that are experiencing abject poverty and struggling to feed themselves and their families and pay their bills. And with more money than there’s ever been, why is it that we still have people that are struggling so much, right? Liberalism, uh neoliberalism, I guess, was prescribed as a cure for all these economic ills. So what is happening? Like, the whole world has basically moved into neoliberalism, right?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah right. Well, a lot of people don’t even realize that in economics, liberalism means something entirely different from what it means in politics, right?

Melody Travers
Not a bunch of liberals.

Richard Heinberg
No, it’s not a bunch of liberals, it’s about the free market. So neoliberalism is about privatization. It’s about shrinking the commons, what we all own together and putting it in private hands — individuals, corporations, mostly corporations. It’s about increasing the amount of loans and debt so that there’s more money to invest in increasing productive processes in society. So you know, all of this can sound pretty good if you’re in that higher echelon of wealth holders. But if you’re down at the bottom of the economic pyramid, it doesn’t look so good at all. Because you look at wherever neoliberalism has been applied throughout the world, where there were more remnants of the commons, in South and Central America, in African countries and so on. And it’s been a disaster, you know? It’s made people miserable. And what, of course, it does is create more economic inequality.

Melody Travers
You mentioned the commons. And I’ve been wondering about how reinvigorating the commons could weaken the wealth pump. Do you want to just say a couple words on what the commons are and how that might work?

Richard Heinberg
Well, in ancient times, there were always lands or resources that were available to everybody, they weren’t owned by anybody in particular, so everybody could use them. So everybody had to manage them together. And that required a lot of discussion and working out, you know, moral principles and so on. Now, in the modern world, as so much has been privatized, a lot of people, who are of the neoliberal persuasion, say the commons just doesn’t work. There’s this thing called the tragedy of the commons, you know? If you have this commons, where everybody grazes their sheep, there’s the incentive for every person who’s doing that to have more sheep than the next person, because they get more benefit. But if everybody does that, then all the grass gets eaten, and all the sheep starve. So the idea is, the commons is bad. But in fact, that’s how human societies worked for thousands and thousands of years. And we still have commons in various forms. I mean, in a family, you don’t charge your infant or your small child for lunch, you know, and keep track of how much they owe you. We just share whatever we have. And we enjoy doing that. And there are still some common lands and resources. The atmosphere is a commons. So of course, we’re dumping carbon dioxide into that atmosphere and polluting it. But nevertheless, that is a common resource that we should be managing as a commons. We need to redevelop those skills of commons management. Doing that, however, means that the people who are used to plundering the commons through pollution or overuse or privatization have to give up some of their wealth, some of their advantages. And that’s the tradeoff.

Melody Travers
I was afraid you were gonna say that. And the other dynamic that’s in there is: it’s not just the elite wealthy couple of billionaires, but unfortunately, it’s also us just as Americans living in a very wealthy country that uses a lot of the world’s resources.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, yeah. This global level of unfairness is a whole other subject, you know, the fact that the industrialized countries have developed ways of systematically impoverishing or exploiting the less industrialized countries. It’s something we who live in the rich countries like to just kind of ignore. But folks in the poor part of the world can’t afford to ignore it. They’re aware of it, painfully aware of it. And of course, they want to be like us. They want to have all this stuff too. They want to have the big TV and the electric car. Hey, that sounds pretty good. I want one of those.

Melody Travers
Me too, I want one. Okay, money always goes hand in hand with debt, right? The history of money and debt have merged together. And that debt accelerates the wealth pump because as you said, I can get a bunch of debt and future Melody can pay for it. And assuming that everything’s moving, and everything’s growing, that money in the future is going to be cheaper than the money now. So awesome. What’s the problem with that?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, debt has always been a problem, because it tends to grow to levels where it’s unrepayable. And we even talked about how in ancient times, it resulted in extreme destitution. And so you had to have debt jubilees to cancel all that debt? Well, in the modern world, we have grown debt to extents never before seen, and we’ve been able to do that, again, because of fossil fuels. Because we had so much economic growth happening so fast. We develop the expectation that this growth is just going to continue forever. And so people in the future are going to have so much wealth, that the debts that we’re racking up today will be easily repayable.

Melody Travers
Yeah, that reminds me of a debate that’s going on right now with student loan forgiveness. And, you know, I grew up in the 90s, I think college was really the new American dream. You want to send your kids to college. That’s the way you set up a good life. And then me and all of my friends graduated in 2012. And I had friends that had straight A’s, and were valedictorians and all this stuff. And we really had a hard time getting jobs. So right off the bat, a lot of people were just sinking under this debt. But at the same time, I have friends that have spent 10 years paying off some of that debt. And now people are just waltzing on in and getting some of their debt forgiven and not having to pay it off. It’s tough because it feels like, is this fair? Like what is fair in this kind of situation?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, it’s a tough one. It is unfair to the people who’ve worked so hard to pay off their loans. But it’s also unfair to all these folks who genuinely thought that there would be a job waiting for them and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and now have this millstone around their neck. And it’s just making their lives miserable. It’s unfair all around. The problem is not people who have paid off the debt or who haven’t paid off the debt or taken on the debt. The problem is the debt itself, right? It’s a dilemma. And ultimately, the solution has got to be for society, to start forgiving debt in larger quantities. And in more ways, we have charged up so much debt, that it is completely unrepayable. There’s something called the debt to GDP ratio, you know, how much debt versus how much money is actually being generated in the economy on an annual basis. And the debt to GDP ratio globally, is off the charts. And we have a lot of history now, about individual countries, societies where the debt to GDP ratio goes too high, so that it becomes impossible to repay that debt. And it never ends well. Everybody’s always saying, well, it’s different this time, of course, because of course, now we know we’ll be able to repay that debt, or we have more sophisticated ways of refinancing it or whatever. But it always ends the same.

Melody Travers
So what would that look like to just have a jubilee? A global jubilee, we’re just gonna clean the slate.

Richard Heinberg
Realistically, we’re talking about bond defaults. And that is going to radically reduce the wealth of the people at the top of the economic pyramid. But it could do so in a way that’s very chaotic, and it would hurt everybody at all levels of the economic pyramid, just the same. So it would be nice if it were just a matter of the people with a lot of wealth having to sacrifice. I mean, if there were a way to get out from under this mountain of debt that caused the least amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people, it would be that it would be to transfer wealth from the super rich toward paying off the debt of everybody else, and then just cancel what can’t be paid. That would be the smart way to do it. Whether we’ll actually do it that way is another question.

Melody Travers
Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos…wanna do something fun for everybody? I think what’s sad is that, like you said, we’re in this perpetual place. And now, it’s a question of how do we do this in the least painful way. So the last one that I wanted to talk about, the last dilemma, is kind of full circle back to our environment. We are experiencing what a lot of scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction. And it’s a dilemma, I think, not just because it’s really sad that all of these different organisms are just perishing, but that human beings are inextricably linked to our environment, and that we have evolved within this matrix of the Earth’s living systems. And no matter how much we shelter ourselves from them, we cannot persist without them. So what do we do? What do we do?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, first of all, we’re not just talking about the extinction of a few rare species, like, tigers or blue whales or red pandas. But we’re talking about, really, the overall decline of wildlife — disappearing numbers of insects, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles. And the scientists who have looked at this and taken surveys and done experiments and crunched the numbers say that two thirds, on average, of the population of all of these classes of animals have disappeared just in the last 50 years. That doesn’t mean that every species is down. At least in my experience, looking around my neighborhood, crows are doing pretty well, rats are doing pretty well, you know, but overall… I mean, with flying insects, I can remember when I was a kid, you know, if we took a car trip, you wouldn’t have to go that many miles before the windshield would just be covered with dead bugs. These days, we can drive from where we are in Northern California to Los Angeles and back again. And you know, there’s maybe three or four dead bugs on the windscreen? Well, what is that telling us? All of those insects are food for birds, and birds are food for somebody else, the whole wild ecosystem is crashing before our very eyes. And why is it doing so? Because we human beings are doing things that are giving us power, with pesticides and herbicides, with more land use, with cutting down forests and putting up parking lots and all the rest. You know, that’s giving us more wealth and power. But it’s resulting in a biological holocaust. So here’s the dilemma: we face a tradeoff, we’re going to have to leave more land wild and use less land and ocean to produce wealth for ourselves.

Melody Travers
Yeah, that is totally easier said than done, though, because we also have a growing population.

Richard Heinberg
That’s right.

Melody Travers
And one of the things with a growing population is that you need places to put those people, and so that is often framed as a humanitarian effort to grow more food, build more houses, to create more infrastructure. And so yeah, it ties back into some of the other dilemmas that we’ve been talking about…

Richard Heinberg
Absolutely.

Melody Travers
Where ceding control, it just, it’s painful.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. Yeah, in recent years, global population has been growing by about 80 million in each year. So 80 million, how many people is that? Well, you start adding together, a Los Angeles and a New York and a Mexico City and so on. That’s really a lot of people. They gotta go somewhere. They’ve got to be fed. And ultimately, that comes at the detriment of the rest of nature. We can do some things better, like if we all ate less meat, for example, then a lot of that land that’s currently grazing land for cattle could be turned into wildland and support more endangered species or just wildlife in general. But of course, that’s another tradeoff where we’re talking about people changing their behaviors and changing their food preferences. So, you know, at the end of the day, as we’ve seen with each of these dilemmas, something is being required of us. We have to give up power in some form. And some people are going to have to give up a lot more power than others. And we don’t like talking about this. We love win-win kinds of scenarios where there’s no sacrifice, there’s nothing we have to give up. Because we know how hard it is. But here we are, at a time, in a situation where basically everything’s at stake. If we are simply unwilling to make some difficult choices, then nature is going to force the very worst options upon us. The irony is if we really focused on the goals of happiness and beauty, we could have them.

Melody Travers
Lewis Hyde wrote that desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal without passion, consumption that leads to neither satiation, nor fire. We are consuming too much, and it hasn’t made us any happier. But what if our voracious appetite is less to blame than the types of things that hunger has been directed toward? Could we direct our attention instead toward beauty, tenderness, and collective action? To change course so drastically won’t be easy. We would have to sacrifice, engage with dilemmas, and relinquish some power. This will be challenging, but it can also be enriching. As Ruth Chang said, “It is here in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves, to become the distinctive people that we are.” Our current course hasn’t worked, and we are ever more aware of what we stand to lose. Is it not worth a shot? We will leave you with the sounds of an overpowered species, and the soundscape of a wild place.

Melody Travers
Looking to dive deeper into these ideas, talk about them with a friend? We’ve put together a Power reading guide to help discussion groups, teachers and students, and anyone listening or reading the book to facilitate understanding and formulate local responses to the interrelated ecological, economic, energy, and equity crises we face today. This guide is free and available at postcarbon.org/power. Together we can transition to a more resilient, equitable and regenerative world. Are you ready to confront power? This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Melody Travers Allison and Rob Dietz. Richard Heinberg is our resident expert. Theme music is by Robert Labaree. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Learn more at postcarbon.org.

 

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