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The Heinberg Pulse

April 5, 2023

Once again, Richard Heinberg explains something that renewable energy boosters prefer not to talk about: The Heinberg Pulse.  In another article from some months ago, Heinberg called the increase in fossil energy necessary to roll out ‘renewable’ energy infrastructure a “pulse” of emissions.  I was glad to have someone with such influence and reputation finally say it, and I wrote about it and called it the Heinberg Pulse.

And now here he is saying it again! Yay!

“Renewable energy sources require energy investment up front for construction; they pay for themselves energetically over a period of years. Therefore, a fast transition requires increased energy usage over the short term. And, in the early stages at least, most of that energy will have to come from fossil fuels, because those are the energy sources we currently have.”

from – Why We Can’t Just Do It: The Truth about Our Failure to Curb Carbon Emissions – resilience

This topic rarely gets discussed anywhere. But it is crucial to our decision-making process concerning how we ought to respond to the climate crisis. It is not merely a salient point about what we ought to be doing. It’s the most salient point!

Climate science tells us we need to immediately reduce fossil fuel consumption dramatically — 50% (minimum) between now and 2030, which is roughly a seven year period. But what would rapid “transition” lead to in that seven year period? It would lead to a Heinberg Pulse — an increase in emissions between now and 2030.

Anyone who believes the governments of the world will rapidly (almost immediately, as needed) adopt degrowth and energy descent of the kind and degree necessary to avert worst case future scenarios are simply out to lunch—delusional—in my opinion. The world’s governments (and the world’s current political systems) are utterly devoted to economic growth. And this will not be changing over the next seven years. We can perhaps usefully try to get governments to go along with the degrowth agenda, but we should most certainly not put all of our eggs in that basket.

So where should we put our eggs — in which basket? I have all of my eggs in the non-violent, non-insurrectionary revolution basket. This scenario for real progress on climate and biodiversity, etc., proposes that we enact a revolutionary approach which mainly amounts to bypassing government, governments and intergovernmental organizations (yes, including the IPCC, which is corrupted). Yes, rather unabashedly, I’m seeing this revolution in terms which at least borrow a lot from the political theory of anarchism — especially what is called “prefigurative politics“. In prefigurative politics, folks directly enact the sort of future world they wish to live in, and they often don’t bother with government at all in doing so.

To address the climate crisis, we must rapidly (immediately, pretty much) reduce fossil fuel consumption by half, then lower emissions beyond 2030 until we’re not adding fossil carbon to the atmosphere. I propose that local communities are “where the rubber meets the road” (where the action must happen) in achieving this aim. And the neighborhood scale is what I would call the “fundamental unit” of scale at which communities must organize to achieve this goal. That makes it real. It makes it honest. Thinking about the problem in this way — at the neighborhood scale — forces our imaginations to contemplate our task in a light which isn’t just a set of conceptual abstractions. It grounds our thinking, feeling, sensing, intuiting and imagining in a particular place — the place where we live.  It reveals the challenge we’re facing, makes it come alive.

I do not mean to say that whole towns and cities — and counties, and watersheds (as in the bioregionalist approach) aren’t important. They are super important. They are crucial scales of organizing and acting. But our problem runs deeper than we tend to be aware. People living in so-called “developed” nations often don’t know their nearby neighbors at all. Not even their first name in many or most cases!  This indicates something crucial about what has happened to our culture. We’ve lost the sense of belonging in relation to proximity! With this, we’ve lost the sense of community — both with others and with the natural world, which is always appearing right where we live, where we dwell.

I do not believe we can have a non-violent, non-insurrectionary revolution of the kind which is necessary without grounding our revolutionary praxis in our neighborhoods. And so we’re going to have to collaborate with our neighbors in reviving the fine art of community. That is, we get to know our neighbors. And we collaborate on projects together, such as community (neighborhood) gardens and integrative permaculture design at the neighborhood scale.

Also, every town or city requires at least one physical gathering place where people gather regularly (and several of these in larger cities), in an informal atmosphere, with others who are seeking to advance the cause of eco-culture (ecologically wise culture). It could be a cafe with a permaculture garden attached — or just a cafe. Someplace where community can emerge in a very informal, spontaneous, organic way. It is in such places that we can hold dialogues and conversations with others who share our commitment to eco-culture and non-violent revolution. It’s here that we can talk with one another about possible (and actual) community projects which result in our village, town, neighborhood … taking the necessary steps to end our dependence upon fossil fuels and a high energy, luxury-dependent mode of economy.

Kickstarting this revolution has been slow. Very. All of the crucial indicators show that we’re trapped in a spasm of inertia, going nowhere.  And maybe what I propose just isn’t possible. But of one thing I am sure. It’s far more probable than the version of the story which would have it that governments are going to lead the way.

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: building resilient commuities, fossil fuel dependence, powering down