For four decades, Richard Heinberg has been observing why our current growth based economy is unsustainable. He has written seminal books on peak oil and the global effects of the end of easily extracted cheap oil. We are now entering that period in human history. Oil prices are on the rise again and companies are mining oil from less easily accessible sites (for instance, BP's deep water explorations in the Gulf of Mexico). As oil becomes scarcer, the risk of accidents increases along with the price per barrel yet humanity's insatiable desire for this black gold continues. It is at the heart of how we run our post-industrial societies in the West and is fuelling the industrial expansion of the developing world.
Richard has also turned his attention beyond oil and has explored the logical scenario of all our finite energy and mineral resources are peaking. We have seen what happens when a resource peaks and becomes uneconomic to extract in a region. Our history is littered with peaks. Cast your mind back to the demise of Cornwall's tin industry or when cheaper coal imports closed much of the UK's coalmines. Entire communities became unemployed.
Yet Richard is a visionary rather than a doomsayer. As Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute in California, he not only identifies limits, he explores the cultural, psychological, and practical changes we will have to make as nature rapidly dictates these new limits. His work has inspired and guided many other luminaries like Rob Hopkins, the pioneer of the global Transition movement. This work – the ability to face the difficult effects of resource depletion and then map future scenarios for our post-carbon world – makes Richard more than an economist or environmentalist. He is a scholar, an intellectual powerhouse, and a man of vision.
The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality is his latest book. Whether you are a seasoned peak oil thinker or new to this subject, it is written with great clarity of mind and in a way that easily engages and explains complex systems. The book makes the compelling argument that the global economy has reached a fateful, fundamental turning point. We are watching it begin to unravel right now. Energy and food prices are rising whilst our levels of debt in the West, which until recently has been funded by continued economic growth, are viral.
Our banks can no longer prop up our economies with cheap loans. Countries like France who have enjoyed decades of high standing for their credit rating are no longer unscathed. The old model of boom and then bust – the bubble effect – is over. Recession can no longer end in a 'recovery'. We have to face the triple whammy of mineral and fossil fuel resource depletion, climate change, and financial disruptions. Our monetary systems are not able to adapt to the global environmental changes and to service our escalating government and private debts. This is indeed our new economic reality. Better to embrace it now and make personal, social and planetary changes rather than live in denial and pay later.
This is a very sober picture. It is, however, probably the only way humanity will wake up and evolve away from greed and the misuse of our Earth's bounty to a more mature and responsible way of living. Richard acknowledges that this book has the potential to 'undermine... mental equilibrium in a way that is both uncomfortable and exhilarating'. That is, I believe, a vital aspect of expanding consciousness. We are called to bravely face unpalatable truths about our collective future and begin to work out ways in which to thrive in the coming years. The challenge will be to move away from an obsessively materialistic focus and to work out ways of being happy with less, rather than indulging in the futile pursuit of growth at any cost. This will require profound personal and societal change.
I believe that this is a deeply spiritual message and that it needs to be heard. I also believe that we all have a personal responsibility to understand how our world is unravelling in order to contribute to what Joanna Macy calls 'The Great Turning', positive ways of transitioning to a post-carbon future. It is not enough to be complacent, do nothing and say, 'It is all meant to be'. Affected badly, our post-carbon future could indeed be a grim apocalyptic struggle for resources with terrible inequalities and progressive eco-system collapse. Therefore, we all need to participate in practical and intellectual ways and help bridge this transition. The End of Growth will push your boundaries, take you on this path and force a change of perspective. You cannot remain unchanged by this book.