Richard Heinberg on Reaching The End of Growth (Podcast)

TreeHugger: There are plenty of people out there, and we've certainly had lots of them on this show, who say that we've got the technologies to get off fossil fuels, and that they're getting better, cheaper, and more efficient every day. But this isn't enough to bend the curve; this won't save us, right?

Heinberg: Unfortunately no, and I'm a huge advocate of renewable energy technologies. I'm talking to you from my house in Santa Rosa that has solar PV on the roof as well as solar hot water, a solar cooker, and a solar food dryer. I'm not saying that these are not useful beneficial technologies that need to be developed. What I am saying is we're getting started way too late. We're about 20 years behind the curve. Well, why not just invest enormous amounts of money, trillions of dollars, in making the energy transition over a very short period of time? The problem with that is that it takes energy as well as money.

We’re in a situation where the world has already reached its peak of net energy production, as evidenced by the fact that the quality of the energy we're getting is so much lower with hydrofracking for natual gas, drilling for oil in miles of ocean water, and so on. The amount of energy we get back at the end of the day compared to the amount of energy we invest is declining.

At this point in history, to try to invest enormous amounts of energy and capital in renewable energy technologies is problematic because it takes energy and capital away from what we're already doing. And there's the problem. We're barely keeping up by our fingernails with investment and energy needs as it is, and then we want to invest energy and capital also in this enormous new project of making the energy transition.

It's not going to bootstrap itself because most of the energy technologies we're talking about have big upfront costs and pay for themselves over time. So it's those huge upfront costs that are going to be really daunting, especially in a situation, where we are now, where investment capital is disappearing.

TH: OK. But what about innovation and growth that is immaterial? When Twitter improves its services, or you and I communicate over Skype, we’re not digging more pixels out of the ground. Can't we continue to grow value without basing it off of burning materials?

Heinberg: Yes, we can and we will. I think we'll be using innovation to adapt to our new economic reality in all kinds of ways. However, a lot of people have unrealistic expectations. They think, "Well, because we use all of these handheld devices and computers all the time these days, we're in a new economy. We're in an information economy, which is fundamentally different from the industrial economy of the early 20th century." Well, what's happening is we have this new surfacy sheen on the industrial technology that's made up of all the Facebook and handheld devices, etc. But if you look under the sheen, it's all still the same.

Where we get our food? It's still from the same industrial food system that we were relying upon five decades ago. How do we transport ourselves around? We don't just beam ourselves through fiber optic cables. We get in our cars which are burning gasoline, or we get in airplanes which are burning kerosene just as we were five decades ago.

The basic physical economy that we rely upon is essentially the same, and that's what is coming apart and needs to be replaced. It's not an easy job. It's a several decade project that's going to require trillions in investment capital, and we've waited too long to get started on that project.

TH: With the passing of Steve Jobs, he's now officially a hero for innovation, progressive business, and design. But a company like Apple, even such a beloved one, is still beholden to all these same fallacies of growth. Is there such thing as a modern day company that isn't locked into this self-destructive loop?

Heinberg: Well, sure. There are thousands and thousands of them all over the place. They're called small businesses. There are farms and small businesses all around the country and all around the world that are profitable, and yet they don't expect to grow year after year.

If they do grow a little bit, that's fine, but it's not a part of their necessary business model. That's the way business used to operate all around the world up until the 20th century when this growth engine really got started. I think that's how business will operate again after we adjust to the end of growth.

Business will be more like an ecosystem. In an ecosystem there's so much energy entering the system from the sun, and plants and animals cycle and recycle that energy in various ways. It's a very dynamic system. Some species survive and some don't, and it's always changing.

I think our business ecosystem is going to be like that. It will always be changing and adapting. People will have new ideas. Some will do better than others, but in the end the amount of energy and materials flowing through that system is going to have to be constant, and it's going to have to be dictated by environmental limits.

TH: On October 31st of this year we'll hit the symbolic day when the earth's population reaches seven billion for the first time. What does that mean to you? How do you interpret that?

Heinberg: Well, unfortunately a growing human population makes all of the problems that we're talking about more difficult to solve. If we're looking at the limits to earth's resources, that means that we have more people to serve, even as the resources available to serve them are becoming less abundant. If we're looking at climate change, we're talking about more and more people wanting to burn fossil fuels in order to increase their standard of living. And of course, the climate emissions are rising fastest in some of these rapidly industrialized countries, principally China..

If we're talking about scarcity of fresh water or our fish from the ocean, more people using those resources makes the problem more difficult. If the problem is a financial one of declining investment capital and disappearing financial assets, well, when we had an economic pie that was constantly expanding, then everybody could aspire eventually to live like North Americans.

But now that we're seeing the economy stagnate and begin to contract, that means that those aspirations are no longer realistic. It becomes a much bigger problem for everyone. So here again, we can't turn on a dime. We can't, in any humane way that any sane person would advocate, reduce human population in a short time frame.

But what we can do is begin to take this issue seriously and help especially people in poorer countries that have very high rates of population growth come to terms with that problem. It's people in the poorer countries who are suffering most already and who will suffer the most in the future as a result of rapid population growth.

TH: Richard, what can people do if they want to be prepared for a post-growth world?

Heinberg: Well, it's kind of ironic, because what I would say is: reduce your consumption. Get used to using less, traveling less. Become more self-sufficient, grow more of your own food, and so on. The reason I say that's ironic is that if everybody did that, it would actually make the economy contract even further and faster. When we don't cook for ourselves but go out to eat, when we don't grow our own food but buy it in a supermarket, that actually makes the economy grow because we're spending more money. When we hire people to do things for us that we could just as easily do for ourselves or have some family member do them, that makes the economy grow faster.

But what does it do to our lives? It makes us more dependent, less self-sufficient, and more vulnerable. So what we need to do to prepare for the end of growth is to get back in touch with one another, to become more self-sufficient, to get to know our neighbors, start sharing garden veggies with our neighbors, build bonds of trust and goodwill throughout our communities. We're going to need our neighbors as we go through this period of transition.

We have an enormous amount of economic volatility and uncertainty ahead of us and we can't look to the market to support us. We have to look to other human beings, and just having a few gold coins stored away in a vault somewhere is not necessarily going to insulate you from the problems ahead of us. But having lots of friends could be your best insurance policy.

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