In addition to his many books on peak oil and the tragedy of urban sprawl, James Howard Kunstler has a weekly podcast with Duncan Crary called the KunstlerCast. The most recent episode recorded an interview with Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-In-Residence at the Post Carbon Institute to discuss Richard’s new book The End of Growth.
The interview lasts almost an hour, with the first part available here.
What is progress?
Kunstler and Heinberg begin with the cultural notion of progress. The 20th century version of this narrative is the result of converting our limited supply of highly concentrated liquid fuels into measurable industrial output on a global scale. This is otherwise known as GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. To justify our waste-based lifestyle, we tainted the economics profession with a disdain for the The Limits To Growth and encouraged abstract financial engineering to assure us that all is well. Instead, Heinberg argues, we need our governments to create new metrics to measure social and environmental welfare.
But rather than implement large scale cultural reforms in the face of dwindling proven reserves, we’ve decided to twiddle our thumbs and wait for the technological fix which we imagine will surely come from somewhere. Kunstler describes this waiting for a “rescue remedy” as a cultural impediment to envisioning a more realistic future. Their conversation reminds us that alternative energy gadgets, such as wind turbines, photovoltaics and bio-fuels depend on an infrastructure of fossil fuels to put them in place. Even if we were successful at making such a cultural shift, the Post Carbon Institute’s own research shows that no combination of available energy sources will replace oil.
According to the authors, this leaves us in denial. Our politicians are trying to placate everyone with political promises rather than telling us the simple but ugly truth. When Kunstler asks Heinberg if President Obama is lying about our supply of domestic fossil fuels, Heinberg says yes, pretty much. He says it’s difficult to conceive how the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu who advises the President, could have missed such an obvious dilemma.
Managing contraction gracefully
A good portion of the interview deals with the consequences of one question: How will we manage a progressive contraction of the economy due to oil depletion and the corresponding strain on our financial model? Here Kunstler and Heinberg provide similar opinions on various questions. They wonder whether companies such as WalMart that depend on globalism and international finance will stay in business? Is the European Union monetary system doomed to failure? What happens to debt when confidence between lenders dissolves?
Heinberg believes the deflationary environment we find ourselves in will intensify. He goes on to reference a portion of his book where he describes three challenges we face: global climate change, Peak Oil, and the “ephemeral condition of too much debt.” His most immediate concern is the latter.
Kunstler agrees, describing it as a horse race between resource scarcity and shortages in capital and credit. Without access to capital markets, oil exploration and development in more remote areas simply cannot continue. In preparation, Heinberg comments on his own lifestyle changes over a ten year period, including adapting his home for lower energy and food production, a gird against coming shocks. Unfortunately he doesn’t think that younger generations have the luxury, time, and financial resources necessary to transition in a similar fashion.
Ultimately both thinkers see social chaos ensuing in the US, much like we’re witnessing abroad. When asked if he believes we’ll have a second American Civil War, Heinberg isn’t entirely convinced. Yet he admits that keeping “…a country together under those circumstances is really a puzzle.” Kunstler offers a more decisive and unforgiving vision. He sees American society unraveling in despair, which in some cases may spawn events that will be interpreted as terrorism.
Keep paying attention
Anyone familiar with Kunstler’s writings will recognize the discussion he frames with Heinberg around the fate of our urban fabric. Suburban communities linked to urban work centers will be left stranded or abandoned as oil depletion and economic contraction take center stage. The core issue here is food. Do Americans retain the cultural memory, social cohesion and more importantly, the skills needed to turn their front lawns into Victory Gardens? Can we solve our crisis by continuing to increase the speed or scale of resource extraction forever? Probably not, and therefore the cost of food is likely to increase as we replace farm equipment with human labor.
In a startling moment in part two of the interview, Heinberg offers his own vision of this post-consumer society: “In my darker moments,” Heinberg confesses, “I think of The Road.” He says he believes the future lies somewhere between this post-apocalyptic nightmare and the Transition Town movement as a more hopeful alternative.
And their time frame for this reconciliation between the waste-based economy and living within our natural resource base? Not decades according to Heinberg, more like months – as in this fall. In his opinion, the current global economic situation is “highly unpredictable, highly unstable” and ready for a “profound economic transformation.”
“Anyone who isn’t pessimistic right now isn’t paying attention” says Heinberg.
Can we be “pessimistic and cheerful at the same time?” quips Kunstler.
Ironically, Mr. Heinberg doesn’t consider himself a doomer at least not compared to others currently speaking out on such matters. Rather, he looks forward to seeing how we use our creativity to adapt to the challenges facing us with creativity. And maybe even a little homespun music.
This interview might be difficult for new observers of peak oil to follow and the interview does not cover Heinberg’s book cover to cover. However, you won’t be disappointed. Kunstler’s friendly banter offers relief to the difficult subject while eliciting very personal remarks from Heinberg. It’s a rare opportunity to listen to the inner thoughts of these two post-petroleum sherpas.
–Jeff Sties for Transition Voice