Peak Everything- Waking up to the Century of Declines By Richard Heinberg 224 pp New Society (2008)
“Our central survival task for the decades ahead, as individuals and as a species, must be to make a transition away from the use of fossil fuels— and to do this as peacefully, equitably, and intelligently as possible.” (from the introduction.)
Richard Heinberg is the acceptable face of Peak Oil. His uncompromising message of the impending collapse of modern society due to resource depletion in his previous books The Party’s Over, Powerdown, and The Oil Depletion Protocol is delivered with too much eloquence and compassion to earn the sobriquet “doomer” and yet he is not afraid of taking on the “difficult” issues of population and collapse.
His latest book, Peak Everything, due to be published later this year, is no exception. This series of essays, some of them previously published on his Museletter website, is not “an introduction to the subject of Peak Oil; Instead it addresses the social and historical context in which Peak Oil is occurring, and explores how we can reorganize our thinking and action in several critical areas to better navigate this perilous time.”
He goes onto say:
“as one contemplates how we humans have so quickly become so deeply dependent on the cheap, concentrated energy of oil and other fossil fuels, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have caught ourselves on the horns of the Universal Ecological Dilemma, consisting of the interlinked elements of population pressure, resource depletion, and habitat destruction — on a scale unprecedented in history.”
Heinberg sets the context of Peak Oil as being the fundamental issue of a time in which we will see many resources and conditions essential for modern society peak, including fish stocks, many essential metals, uranium, arable land and fresh water per capita. Heinberg links these all to the fundamental and issue of cheap fossil energy, but also invites us to consider what may not be peaking- including community, creativity, leisure time, happiness and beauty.
Heinberg’s writings take an essentially human ecological perspective- that human societies are essentially governed by the same energetic and systemic base that all natural systems are subject to, and that the Oil Age has been a temporary blip that has allowed us to imagine we have escaped the inevitability of boom-and-bust-cycles and that we will simply continue onward and upwards with our technology and our innovative minds perhaps eventually to go and live on other planets once this one is used up.
An understanding of ecological systems, the energy base for human societies and the impending consequences of Peak Oil bring us back to reality:
“Our starting point, then, is the realization that we are today living at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history — an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible… The only real question is whether societies will contract and simplify intelligently or in an uncontrolled, chaotic fashion.”
The following chapters cover a diverse range of topics. In 50 million Farmers, Heinberg considers the need for a reversal of the trend of the last 100 years to leave the land and how in the future far more people will of necessity be involved in food production; Post-petroleum Aesthetics discusses the arts and crafts movement and how hand-tools and hand-craftsmanship may make a revival in the post-peak world; Parrots and Peoples is a touching investigation into the origins of civilization and the domestication of humans looked at through the eyes of parrot society as described in the book The Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark Bittner.
The second section has a more theoretical examination of “Five Axioms of Sustainability” in which Heinberg draws on the Brundtland definition as well as the Natural Step to produce his own benchmark for a sustainable society;
Heinberg does not avoid the hard issues of population and the total human footprint or of laying down the gauntlet to other activists to include this as one essential part of the sustainability equation:
“The longer we put off choosing the nicer methods of achieving demographic stability, the more likely the nasty ones become, whether imposed by nature or by some fascistic regime…. An ethic of human rights, of sharing, and of equity without a practically expressed awareness of ecological limits is a setup for disaster. But demographic competition by way of fascism, as a response to population-resource crises, is an admission of failure; and it is less an expression of human nature than of the ugly habits formed through the past few thousand civilized years of extreme inequality, hierarchy, and authoritarianism. The longer we wait, the fewer our options. Social liberals and progressives who fail to talk about population and resource issues and to propose workable solutions are merely helping to create their own worst nightmare.”
The thirds section contains perhaps the most important essay on the psychology of peak oil in which Heinberg asks- why have humans got themselves into this situation? Why with all our modern achievements, rational thought, science and technology, have we not seen these converging crises coming?
He discusses the theory of evolutionary psychology which suggests that we still think like hunter-gatherers, who require instant responses to short-term problems; the challenges of the modern world however demand that we learn to think systemically, to see the bigger picture, which our long evolutionary past has not well equipped us to do. He also surveys various other approaches, including Stages of Denial (from Kubler-Ross) and addiction therapy, also examining the idea of psychological maturity- that we need to effectively grow up and think about more than just our own personal well-being if we are to work for change. This idea of maturity is an aspect of developmental psychology, and I would like to have seen more in this section, for example to read his views of developmental models such as Spiral Dynamics and how they can help us understand and create change strategies.
This leads on to his highly entertaining examination of his own generation- the boomer generation- those born between 1946 and 1964 (which incidentally puts me in at the very tale end of this generation- the last of the boomers!) which has been the greatest benefactor of the cheap oil bonanza, and why the hippy revolution with its promise of liberation and harmony failed to deliver:
“…the voltage that made Harrison’s and Clapton’s guitars gently weep, and that wafted Grace Slick’s and Janis Joplin’s voices past the back rows in amphitheaters seating thousands — in short, the power of the music that united a generation — flowed ultimately from coalfired generating plants. That same 110 volt, 60 cycle AC current energized stereo sets in dorm rooms and apartments across America, allowing ten million teenagers to memorize the lyrics to songs impressed on vinyl (i.e., petroleum) disks in the certain knowledge that these were revelatory words that would change the course of history.”
As a permaculture teacher it is of course gratifying to find Heinberg singling out this holistic ecological design system as perhaps the greatest legacy of this culturally revolutionary era.
Heinberg is not afraid to say it as it is, indeed he feels compelled to do so. The lessons of the past are that tragically authorities often fail to alert a population to the severity of their predicament for fear of causing a panic, thus leading it too late before sounding the alarm; Heinberg brings a refreshing voice of realism which helps us see more clearly where we are and what we are facing:
“It may seem cynical to some if I say that it is too late to salvage America’s political system, its economy, its suburban way of life; that it is even too late to contemplate an easy and peaceful transition to a different socio-ecological reality. But as far as I can tell, these are the facts. That possibility probably died in 1980. As they say these days, get over it”.
Far from leaving us hanging without any direction from here, Heinberg points to the way forward:
“People will not willingly accept the new message of “less, slower, and smaller,” unless they have new goals toward which to aspire. They must feel that their efforts will lead to a better world, with tangible improvements in life for themselves and their families.”
-and outlines the kind of culture we will need to create if sustainability is ever more than a distant dream that dies with the last of the 1960s hippies:
“In the best instance, the next generations will find themselves in a low-energy regime in which moral lessons from the fossil-fuel era and its demise have been seared into cultural memory. Like the Native Americans, who learned from the Pleistocene extinctions that over-hunting results in famine, they will have discovered that growth is not always good, that modest material goals are usually better for everyone in the long run than extravagant ones, and that every technology has a hidden cost. There is no free lunch”.
Peak Everything is a really enjoyable and informative look at the cultural, socio-political and psychological aspects of the all-time peaking of energy and resource availability for humanity, a period which we are living through right now. Heinberg puts this experience in context and provides a voice for our generation and our times.