21 December 2007

Essential and unsettling reading about our options for making it in the Post-oil Age

PowerDown: Options And Actions For A Post-Carbon World
Richard Heinberg
New Society Publishers, 2004

Author Richard Heinberg approaches his topic, the consequences of peak oil and the final stop of the cheap oil gravy train, with ecological sensibility and moral clarity. These two characteristics, coupled with a straightforward prose style, make for compelling reading, as well as for serious reflection on the hard choices that we most likely face in the near future.

Heinberg's introductory chapter recaps his earlier book, The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies. In it, he describes a century's uncritical addiction to cheap oil and outlines the impending crises it has wrought, crises for which we must prepare and to which we will soon respond, voluntarily or otherwise.

After this brief introduction (which basically assumes the truth of the peak oil dilemma, a definite problem for those who are still unconvinced), Heinberg lays out four paths that we may take, both individually and collectively, in response to the threats of dwindling power supplies, climbing global temperatures, etc.
  1. Last One Standing - In this scenario, which Heinberg glumly admits is the default scenario given our inability (or worse, unwillingness) to consider the reality of our natural constraints and our predilection for settling things militarily, the powers of the world scramble in their rush to control the world's remaining energy resources. The US misadventure in Iraq, and the current threats to Iran, are part and parcel of this "option," which, as most sane people will admit, doesn't sound like much of an option at all but is, instead, the path of least resistance. As Heinberg notes, this is "a breathtakingly alarming prospect" that may lead to "the general destruction of human civilization and most of the ecological life-support system of the planet" (p. 55). (And for those who would dismiss this speculation as merely the work of a green handwringer, he cites a Pentagon report featured in Fortune magazine that sketches the basic outlines of this kind of "option." If the top brass are seriously thinking about it, then so should we citizens.)
  2. Powerdown - This scenario is all about radically reforming the human heart, so as to replace a global culture of greed and self-interest with one of collective interest, sharing, and community. Important components of this powerdown strategy include limiting the size of the human population, increasing the efficiency of our energy consumption, replacing planned obsolescence with enduring quality, and returning global agriculture from its contemporary dependence on fossil fuels to its sustainable, organic roots. Of course, these changes necessitate a change in our underlying economic principles, so that eternal growth is seen as a suicidal imperative and an ecological impossibility, which will in turn necessitate changes in our social and political organization. Because these radical changes will have to be implemented quickly, Heinberg realizes that something like Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat will have to be formed, presumably of like-minded folks of ecological sensibility and moral clarity. Alas, this option seems to me to be a combination of wishful thinking and highly questionable forms and uses of power; as anyone with a sense of history knows, such vanguards tend not to dissolve of their own accord and folks who aim at radically transforming the human heart end up getting crucified. Nevertheless, the scenario is one we may face out of necessity rather than choice, and so it is essential to come to grips with it.
  3. Waiting for the Magic Elixir - This describes the option, if it can be called that, of waiting for the technoscience and free market cavalries to deliver the solution to our problems. Because we've muddled through before, goes the argument, we will surely do so again. This option includes all the hullabaloo about the new hydrogen economy, or abiotic oil, or tar sands, or zero-point energy, etc. None of these options take factors like ERoEI into account, for example, but more problematic, they seek to tackle the problem solely from the supply-side. If we don't work on the demand-side, argues Heinberg, we will merely forestall the crises of overpopulation and overconsumption that come from living beyond our ecological means. Needless to say, Heinberg has little patience for this option, seeing in it a self-centeredness that is morally reprehensible.
  4. Building Lifeboats - In this final option, Heinberg echoes Morris Berman's Twilight of American Civilization in calling for a counterculture of "new monks" who will preserve those aspects of human science and arts that are worth preserving. In short, we will need to have small communities in which traditional and primitive technologies and skills are mated to contemporary knowledge of science, politics, literature, etc. Again, this is a tall order for such a short amount of time, but at least this challenge sounds possible and interesting.
In conclusion, Heinberg argues that the world's elites will probably play up option three while tacitly working on option one. Most of the outspoken opposition, the so-called "Other Superpower" of the anti-globalization, etc. activists, will choose a variant of option two, but they are limited because of their resistance to admittedly problematic ideas, specifically those involving population control. The rest of us folks here on the ground, living our modest middle class lives in our modest single-family homes, will suffer the impact of option one (e.g., sending our children to die in oil wars, watching as formerly unmentionables like torture become acceptable again, etc.) while also being able to reduce our own consumption, to reach out and form new small-scale communities, and to increase our practices of cultural preservation. None of these options looks pretty to those of us reared in the age of opportunity, but if what Heinberg and others argue about peak oil is true, these options may be all we have.

(This review was originally written on January 3, 2007.)

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