Q&A with Post-Carbon Institute's Richard Heinberg

Kyle Curtis Facebook

The post-carbon expert will be engaging interested Portland residents at two events this Friday.

I do not envy Richard Heinberg. Imagine being a senior fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, and how frustrating it would be to have all of your research and warnings all but ignored by modern society, or perhaps receive only the slightest cosmetic attention from mass media and policy makers? Richard has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues including such books as "The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies," and will be speaking at two events this Friday in Portland to remind us just how doomed we all are. Due to his current packed schedule in promotion of his new book The End of Growth, Richard was unable to speak directly in advance of his upcoming Portland events, but was kind of enough to respond to a few questions via email.

Recently, I interviewed a leader of Portland's Transition Initiative, and we discussed the idea of what a "resilient community" is and whether Portland approaches this model. I'm curious how you would define the idea of a "resilient community" and how you might gauge Portland's efforts to achieve this model?

A resilient community is one that can withstand disturbance while continuing to provide for the needs of its citizens. Disaster preparedness can help with this, as can the re-localization of food systems. If an economy is fairly self-contained, that means that fluctuations in global markets will be less disturbing. The idea is not to do away with trade, but to introduce redundancies in crucial parts of the system, and increase inventories of important materials and products. This tends to work against economic efficiency, so a resilient community doesn’t exhibit the rapid growth sometimes seen in one that is benefiting from globalization of production and finance capital. But if a resilient community doesn’t see booms, it is also somewhat insulated from busts. These days that’s obviously a good thing.

How is Portland doing on these scores? Pretty well as compared to most other U.S. cities, but not as well as could be hoped. Local food initiatives and other economic resilience efforts will help the city weather the energy/resource/finance storms ahead, but let’s face it: Portland is still tied to the national and global economy.

I'd like to bring up a couple of recent developments to get your perspective on. Recently, the Portland City Council voted to approve to collect kitchen scraps in the current yard waste compost bins, which will reduce garbage pick-up to every other week. Other metropolitan areas have adopted similar food scrap collection plans. This has not been without controversy, with critics referring to the plan as onerous "slop bucket" forced down citizens throats by the City. What are your thoughts on these efforts by municipalities to divert food from the waste stream?

Too bad the city has to force people not to be idiotic, but sometimes we just can’t afford more idiocy. We have been operating our economy as a one-way, linear system—resources in, waste out—as though there were infinite resources and infinite environmental space for waste. Guess what? That’s idiotic! Nature recycles everything, and we need to do the same or we will soon face resource shortages and unsurvivable levels of pollution. Composting food scraps? That’s a no-brainer. There are lots of other linear flows that we will need to turn into closed loops: phosphorus, minerals and metals, plastics, and more. We might as well get used to it and make the most of it. During World War II billboards promoted recycling as patriotic and everybody got into it, even made a game out of it.

I am in the midst of reading The Post-Carbon Reader, and a conclusion I am coming to is that seemingly non-tangential aspects of life are connected and will be severely impacted by Peak Oil and the post-carbon era. The biggest story right now is the Occupy Movement, with Occupy Portland having completed two weeks by the time of your visit. In what ways is the Occupy Movement impacted or influenced by Peak Oil and the coming post-carbon lifestyle and economy?

I think of the Occupy Movement as the End-of-Growth Uprising. If economic growth hadn’t come to an end recently, tax revenues wouldn’t be shrinking and governments would be able to make payments on their debts. Unemployment would be at tolerable levels and new jobs would be appearing. Government and corporate corruption would continue to fester relatively unnoticed. But with no economic growth the whole system seizes up and high levels of economic inequality become socially unsustainable.

Now, what’s causing growth to fizzle? I explore that question in the first couple of hundred pages of my book. In a nutshell: resource limits, rising levels of environmental disaster, and a global economy that has morphed into a pyramid scheme. It’s hard for most people to put all these pieces together in their minds because part of the problem is over-complexity—it’s all just so complicated. So when protesters are asked what their demands are, they don’t have a simple three-point program to push. Politicians and the media are essentially ignoring and denying the real roots of the crisis, and as long as that’s the case the crisis will only get worse, so the suffering of ordinary people will increase and more people will show up at protests. There can be no solution until we are all willing and able to address the fundamental, systemic causes of the crisis.

I have heard a number of terms to describe the effect that our present carbon-based economy and lifestyle that relies on cheap sources of energy has on the weather: "global warming," "climate change," and- my favorite- "global weirding." What framing efforts would you recommend to progressive activists who are attempting to address the urgency of this environmental calamity on those who absolutely insist on denying science?

I use all those frames. For some folks, nothing works: they’ve decided that climate change is a scam and nothing will convince them otherwise. For those whose minds are at least slightly cracked open, I start with assessments of worsening weather problems—not from climate scientists, but from the insurance industry. Money talks. And if you extrapolate currently soaring costs of natural disasters just a few decades forward, the insurance industry sees no viable model for risk assessment and valuation. Which is their way of saying “the economy will die.”

Okay, what is causing this? It could be natural climate cycles or sunspots—but it just so happens that we are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere in a way that one might expect (on the basis of painstaking, thorough research) to produce exactly the sorts of weather effects we are seeing. So we’re supposed to ignore that and assume instead that it’s the sunspots? Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but some opinions are obviously more rational than others.

In the same interview I mentioned previously, I was informed that the next 20 years aren't going to look like the last 20 years. In what manner do you think things will be most different in our lifestyle 20 years from now?

Look: the rate of economic change we are beginning to see is such that it’s hard to forecast even five years ahead. Certainly in 20 years we will have an economy that scarcely resembles the last quarter-century. But whether it will be a wasteland or a new localized and resilient economy-in-construction depends on what we do now to adapt to the end of economic growth as we have known it. The end of growth need not be the end of the world, but it could be. On the other hand, it could mark a painful but ultimately beneficial transition toward sustainability.

Bill McKibben and the 350.org movement has been instrumental in drawing a lot of attention to how the current carbon-based economy is threatening so many aspects of our environment and nature at a systemic level. At the same time, is there an "under-the-radar" issue or two that is escaping attention that should be discussed more by policy makers and activists?

Climate change is one of three legs of the global crisis. I summarize it in the word “disaster.” The other two I summarize as “depletion” and “debt”—the Three “Ds” We are depleting resources at a rate that is leading to scarcity of energy, minerals, water, fish, and other commodities. And we have a Ponzi debt-based economy.

Ironically, public attention is likely to be directed to these three interlinked crises in inverse proportion to their long-range importance. The financial meltdown is the easiest of the three to solve—just reinvent money and economics! That’s a huge job, but nations have done it before. It will be messy and awful for a while, but we can manage it.

Dealing with resource depletion is harder: there are no easy answers here other than a transition to renewable energy sources—but that doesn’t solve everything. We’re still depleting topsoil and all the rest, unless we downsize and rethink the whole industrial model.

Climate change is the hardest of the three, because we’ve already set in motion a process that has its own unstoppable momentum. Not only will the human economy be affected, but millions of other species, and for millennia and perhaps millions of years. Yet few people can understand the two deeper, systemic crises (depletion and disaster).

Most people’s attention is going to be fixated on the ongoing economic-financial implosion. So politicians will be tempted to try to solve that in a way that actually makes the deeper problems worse—with resource wars that distract people’s minds from the crumbling economy.

Finally, what is your presentation in Portland on Friday the 21st going to be about, and what should be expected by those who attend?

I’m going to make the case that the U.S. is leading the world into the post-growth era. We’ll see why the growth economy started here and why it’s ending here, and how to adapt. There’s only so much detail I can unpack in an hour, but folks will come away with a better understanding of why all this is happening and what they can do. There will be plenty of time for questions.

One further question: In your position at Post Carbon Institute and the research you do, it must be difficult to not feel frustrated & pessimistic about the future. What, if anything, gives you optimism and perhaps even hope for the future?

This is such a beautiful world we live in. Nature is absolutely miraculous. I just can’t imagine letting it all to go down the drain without putting up a fight. And it turns out that insisting on making a difference puts you in touch with other people who also appreciate beauty and wonder and think that is worth defending. So you end up hanging out with people who think for themselves and have a highly developed sense of awe, appreciation, and beauty. That’s a recipe for good times.

Look: I don’t know how all of this is going to end. My brain and gut both tell me we have some very hard days ahead. But hard times don’t have to be utterly apocalyptic; they can be occasions that call forth the best in people. We can make this transition the easy way or the hard way. I want it to be the easy way, but “wanting” isn’t good enough; we’ve got to put ourselves on the line.

Richard Heinberg will be discussing "Community Resiliency in a Contracting Economy" at a free Brown Bag presentation from noon to 1 pm at the 2nd floor auditorium of the Portland Building, 1120 SW 5th Ave. At 7 pm, Richard will be discussing "The End of Growth" at PNCA as part of Illahee Lectures' "Sacred Cows" series.

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