While Marx predicted that socialism would follow capitalism, Richard Heinberg predicts the next thing will be localism.
“All roads appear to lead eventually to localism; the questions are: how and when shall we arrive there, and in what condition? (And, how local?),” Heinberg writes in his latest book, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels. (We received a review copy of Afterburn free of charge).
But that’s not what’s new in this collection of Heinberg’s essays. Anyone following the Transition movement has been hearing for nearly a decade that more active local economies are the inevitable future once the triple threat of climate change, peak oil and economic crisis topples global industrial capitalism as we know it. The message came through loud and clear in 2008 with The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins and the world’s local future has been a core tenet of Transition ever since.
What’s new about Afterburn is that it offers two things that Transitioners or anyone else who forecasts a more local future needs today: inspiration and advice for the future that’s better than most of what you’ll read elsewhere.
These days, with gasoline prices hovering around $2.50 a gallon and all the talk about cheap natural gas from fracking, if you still care about peak oil, then you’re going to be pretty lonely. It’s easy to feel like you’re the crazy person for seeing an end to fossil fuels and thinking it’s a big deal when everybody else acts like the party of cheap energy and economic growth is going to last forever.
It’s easy to burn out on climate change too, but for a different reason. Though a surprisingly high proportion of Americans who are not Republican Congressmen accept that humans are changing the climate for the worse, anyone who cares about climate surely must have passed far beyond frustration long ago. After years of arguments by liars and morons about science and various forms of dickering by government, to be a climate activist today you surely need a level of fanaticism reminiscent of a Boston Abolitionist in the 1840s: “Sure, all hope is lost. But I’m so damned angry and I know I’m so morally right that I just can’t shut up.”
Inspiration is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Heinberg, a slight, scholarly type who seems right at home as the wonkiest of the energy geeks at the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank that tries to get people who aren’t in ASPO-USA to care about peak oil.
But Afterburn delivers a surprising amount of jolt for the burned-out environmentalist or peak oiler. “Your Post-Petroleum Future (A Commencement Address)” is worth the price of the whole book for putting today’s situation in simple, clear language and offering a strong call to action for young people who care about the future.
After the administration at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to give the graduation speech in 2011, a group of students issued their own invitation to Heinberg to give them an alternative commencement address. What they got was a Kennedy-style exhortation to embrace the opportunity in a challenging historical moment.
After explaining that society will need to solve three main problems over the course of the students’ lifetimes — feed the world with less oil, water and soil; support seven billion people with other resources depleting too; and prevent a catastrophic depression — Heinberg makes his pitch:
Each of these core problems will take time, intelligence, and courage to solve. This is a challenge for heroes and heroines, one that’s big enough to keep even the greatest generation in history fully occupied. If every crisis is an opportunity, then this is the biggest opportunity humanity has ever seen.
In a softer tone, Heinberg makes the same point in several other essays in Afterburn, that things will be tough but that all hope is not lost. Even with crappy central government hobbled by plutocrats, if local communities plan well, people can have a decent future.
If you accept that a future of war, pestilence and famine is not inevitable after the collapse of global capitalism, because humans have more of a history of cooperating with each other than we do of competing against each other as Heinberg argues, then you’ll find his advice for the future useful. Delivered throughout the book, I boil it down to three main points:
1. Nothing will save us.
If by “us” you mean today’s industrial consumer economy, that is. For a variety of reasons starting with net energy and going into peak everything and impacts of climate change on the economy, no amount of electric vehicles, nuclear power or solar panels will allow citizens of rich countries to continue to live as we have for the last few decades.
“Quite literally, we must learn to be successfully and happily poorer,” Heinberg writes. Of course, if you follow peak oil, you knew that already. But too many climate activists seem to think that we can pretty painlessly replace oil and coal with solar and wind to keep United Airlines, Netflix and Walmart humming along — and create lots of green jobs at the same time. So this Bud’s for them.
If you’re still not convinced, watch Heinberg talk about why renewables are necessary, but will not be enough to replace all our fossil fuels in the short video “Our Renewable Future.”
2. Don’t waste time.
You have to give the devil his due, and it’s clear that society’s puppet masters in government and big business have done an impressive job postponing both an oil crash and financial collapse decades longer than anyone had a right to deserve. Given the surprising strength of the current shell game, perhaps those of us in rich countries will still have another couple decades until the piper must finally be paid.
In that borrowed time, Heinberg writes, “we can simply enjoy our remaining days of ‘normal’ life…Spend time at the beach. Learn to play a musical instrument. See friends and family.” Or, we can get ready for the future:
How about using whatever interval we have — whether it turns out to be weeks or decades — to build community resilience? Get to know your neighbors. Plan next season’s garden. Join efforts to create a community-run renewable energy utility company. Buy from local farmers. Put your savings in the local credit union. Take a Transition Launch! training course.
3. Become a homesteader and an activist.
If you’re naturally of a doomerish frame of mind, Heinberg’s optimism won’t stop you from taking away the message from Afterburn that the future could be a hellscape where the only safety lies in making your home a castle.
But that’s never the kind of homesteading that Heinberg has encouraged, and Afterburn is really about getting you to see how your household resilience depends on the fate of your town and your neighborhood. Damnit, join a Transition group if you haven’t done it yet already!
And no matter how hopeless it seems, you should also get involved with government, at least on the local level, where you have more of a chance to make a difference than in Washington.
Yet, despite all his critiques of national politicians who won’t stop promising to work for more economic growth — the very growth that is destroying the climate and that won’t be possible once energy shortages start to hit hard — Heinberg can’t resist offering advice to “any national policy maker who may be reading.”
Overall, though I can’t imagine anyone in Washington today listening, it’s not bad advice: Keep the social safety net intact as long as possible, promote more local economic production, protect the environment, stabilize population, promote citizen participation in government, provide universal education in academics but also in resilience skills such as gardening and cooking, and finally,
Don’t be evil — that is, don’t succumb to the temptation to deploy military tactics against your own people as you feel your grip on power slipping; the process of decentralization is inexorable, so plan to facilitate it.
This is truth speaking to power for governors of an American Empire that seems about to meet the fate of ancient Rome. Will we go down gracefully or must we do it with a nasty fight?
Too much localization could threaten nation-states
Heinberg is clearly concerned about individual civil liberties. And given developments of the last decade from campus cops pepper spraying Occupy activists, to the NSA spying on U.S. citizens at home to racist policing from Ferguson to Baltimore, Americans should be more worried than ever about protecting our individual rights from tyrants.
But what Heinberg doesn’t talk about much or at all is the edgier side of localization: movements by groups of people in different places towards secession. If national governments allow or even enable local economies to grow at the expense of the global or national system, as Heinberg recommends, won’t cities, provinces and regions demand more home rule in the future? That will certainly threaten the authority of those same national governments that Heinberg wants to become partners in localization.
History has shown that it’s not possible to have much economic localization without more local political control as well. In the U.S., it may not be totally crazy to imagine a future scenario where, in a time of deep national crisis, muscular localization efforts lead to a break-up of the union, as John Michael Greer explored in his novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming.
With the specter of secession looming behind any effort at serious localization, Heinberg’s advice to communities to pay tribute to the central authorities even as the state grows weak or irrelevant is wise counsel.
So, your town might be smart to start printing its own local currency to replace the U.S. dollar, building its own micro-grid to break free from your state’s regulated monopoly utility and passing a resolution to ban fracking within city limits even if that conflicts with federal regulations.
But while you’re building your town’s autonomy, play it safe and remember to keep the Stars and Stripes flying above city hall.
Editor’s Note: We get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice