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Monday, June 06, 2005

An interview with Richard Heinberg

by Aric McBay (April 09 2004)

Richard Heinberg is the author of The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. His website is I interviewed him on April 9 2004.

Aric McBay: How do you expect to see industrial collapse play out? That is, do you expect to see a gradual, although necessarily swift transition to near-universal organic agriculture and drastically reduced energy consumption? Or do you expect to see a more rapid collapse? Do you want to speculate here on what sort of time frame do you expect to see in terms of collapse?

Richard Heinberg: There are too many variables to enable a clear prediction. I would say that the most likely scenario would commence with an international crisis brought on by a meltdown of the US economy, beginning perhaps next year. This would result from unsustainable levels of debt, plus pressure from skyrocketing natural gas prices. Oil prices are likely to stay high, too. However, it is likely that petroleum will remain available at current rates of production for another three or four years before the oil downturn begins as a result of depletion.

Geopolitical instability will increase at this time, and that is the real wild card. I would like to see international cooperation to solve the world's energy problems, but the overwhelming likelihood is for resource wars to become more common and intense. The Middle East is likely to be a locus for such conflicts, but others could occur in Central Asia, Africa, and South America. Oil-producing nations will wish to control their resources, while importing nations will demand more. Meanwhile, importing nations will be vying with one another for whatever is available.

Things could drag on like this for a decade or two, or there could be a quick and nasty showdown. If major powers are drawn in and the conflict goes nuclear, all bets are off. That is not a distant possibility. It is truly frightening to see the sorts of weapons that are being developed these days - tactical nukes, genetic bioweapons, space-based weapons, and on and on. The generals and the arms manufacturers are preparing for one hell of a last act.

AM: How do you think that those in power will respond to attempts for communities to become more industrially independent, and so, more autonomous and detached from the goals and propagation of the power complex? It's fairly clear that shifting to a more sustainable economic system means bleeding power away from those in power, and having a less centralized system. Historically, those in power have used force and violence to suppress the development of alternatives like that. What can communities do about this?

RH: After a certain point, it will become almost impossible for central powers to offer much in the way of services for local communities; if the latter are able to fend for themselves, they may have a relatively free hand to do so. Look to the Great Depression for precedents: some communities developed their own currencies as a strategy to keep their economies alive. I don't think it would be advisable for communities to aggressively provoke central authorities, but the latter will be overwhelmed with other matters.

AM: Historically, the majority of energy and manufacturing in industrial society has been directly or indirectly contributing to or resulting from war. The military uses about a third of the US oil supply. Once available energy supplies are drastically reduced, do you think that the military will attempt to monopolize the output of sustainable power facilities, using "national security" or other excuses? For example, I have visions of a biodiesel powered Abrams tank <1>, and electric windmills spinning atop the Pentagon. What are appropriate responses to this, and how should it influence our approach in implementing new sources of energy? Are some sources of energy less vulnerable to military co-option than others?

RH: Renewable energy sources will, for the most part, be ineffective at powering the war machine. I would expect efforts to manufacture synfuels from coal, and perhaps some experiments with biofueled military vehicles. You're correct in assuming that whatever is available - electricity, food, water, machinery - will be commandeered by the military officers, but they will go after the materials and supplies they are most familiar with first. I can't think of any way to defend against this. These people are highly trained specialists in violence.

AM: How would you like see things pan out in the generations after collapse? Would you like to see a "Future Primitive" and a gradual shift away from civilization?

RH: Yes, of course. If we can salvage some of our humanity and most of nature, I can imagine future generations living in small, technologically modest communities. They would have memories of the events of the 21st century to serve as a cautionary tale embedded, no doubt, in new myths, so they would be highly motivated to keep population levels low - perhaps a few tens of millions of humans total, globally. Of course, life would go on, and there would be the inevitable mistakes and conflicts. But once the oil is gone I doubt if another generation will ever be capable of the exuberance and arrogance of ours.

AM: The longer industrial civilization persists, the more ecological destruction it will cause. And yet, non- (or post-) industrial peoples are especially in need of healthy bioregions to surive and thrive. Also, ecological "systems" have their own inherent worth. How do you address the conflict between the need for a gradual shift away from industrial civilization to save human lives in the short term, and the need to protect the biosphere, and hence the survivors of the collapse, in the long term?

RH: This is indeed a serious problem. As fossil fuels are depleted, humans will do what they can to survive - and that may include cutting down virtually every tree on Earth for firewood, destroying soils, draining aquifers, and so on.

How to stop this? One can only propose theoretical solutions, but these would require some forms of rational national and international authority. There would need to be cooperative agreements between nations, so that rich nations would cede wealth to poor nations. Governments would have to ration resources and manage reproduction rates. There are no doubt ways to do all of this, but the political will and courage required would be unprecedented. And it is difficult to reconcile the process with democratic ideals and notions of human rights (especially the right to reproduce).

Ultimately, however, the central authorities would have to self-destruct in favor of local autonomy, because the energy base would no longer be present to support long-distance systems of command and control.

AM: What do you think is the most important message that we should pass down to our descendants, to those who go after the collapse, about industrial civilization?

RH: My reflex is to say, "Don't try THAT again! See what happens?" I think they'll get the message on their own, though. On the other hand, I would like to see some things preserved. Even if the past 200 years were a ghastly ecological and demographic error on the part of our species, we did produce some great music and art, as well as a lot of neat scientific knowledge. I hope there are communities that devote themselves to conserving as much of that as possible.


<1> Six months after I wrote this, the United States Marine Corps publicized their creation of a diesel-electrical hybrid Humvee for "reconnaissance, surveillance, and targeting". One news report suggested that "its diesel-electric hybrid powertrain could make environment-friendly [sic] fast attack vehicles the norm."

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Bill Totten


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