Peak Oil Interview - Richard Heinberg (2/2)
Interview - Richard Heinberg (2/2)
The following is part two of an edited transcript of an interview that
Ingrid and I conducted in late November 2005 at the New College in Santa
Rosa, California, with faculty member Richard Heinberg, author of "The
Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies" and
"Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World."
* * *
I think societies are likely to respond to Peak Oil in basically one of
four ways. The first one I call 'Last One Standing.' And that's, I
think, the default mode. That's the path we're on right now, which is
basically, fighting over what's left. As oil becomes more scarce,
standard human response will be to contest over the remaining supplies.
And of course, that leads nowhere. Nobody will win the last oil war,
because we'll destroy the very thing we're fighting over in the process
of fighting over it.
The second path, which is a pretty common-sensical one, is what I call
'Power Down.' It's using less. It's scaling back society, so that our
per capita consumption of non-renewable resources is diminished
substantially. So that gradually, we reduce the scale of the human
project until we're within the long-term carrying capacity of the
planet, for human beings. Because we're way outside that right now,
we're in overshoot territory, in ecological terms.
So if we're going to survive much longer, and do it in a coordinated,
cooperative way, we're going to have to scale down considerably. That's
a tough sell, though, because we're in an industrial growth economy, and
we have advertising that's convinced us all that we deserve to have
more, and it's out there for us to have. So we have to change those
cultural messages. A successful power down is not going to happen
unless we really change our whole cultural story, and engage in mass
That's a big process. I think there's a strong tendency, therefore, to
take a third path, which is the path of 'Delusion and Denial.' Well, if
we're going to run out of oil, well, we'll just substitute something
We'll all run our cars on vegetable oil, or we'll dig a bunch of coal
of the ground, and turn that into a substitute synthetic fuel for our
cars, or whatever, methane hydrates. There are all kinds of things we
Now, in fact, if you start examining all of those closely, none of them
can actually make up for what we're doing with oil right now. And even
if some of them theoretically could, eventually, if we put enough
investment into them, and so on, it would take time, and it would take,
literally, trillions of dollars of investment, to build up the scale of
the flow of these alternative fuels and energy sources. It's not going
But the danger is that we would convince ourselves that, sure, that's
the way it will happen, until we get to the point where we've wasted all
the time that we might have used in preparation, in transition, that we
have to choice, but to take path number one, 'Last One Standing,' just
fight over what's left. Again, I think that's a likely path, it's an
easy path, especially if you're a politician or a policy maker, because
you don't actually have to do anything, all you have to do is listen to
the people around you who are saying, Don't worry, there's always
something else, the market will take care of it, whatever.
The fourth path is, if 'Power Down' doesn't work, or it's not even
seriously tried, and if we do go the path of 'Last One Standing' and
'Delusion and Denial,' what will happen, most likely, is the collapse of
industrial civilization. And if that is the likely outcome, then we
should be putting some effort into building lifeboats. So this fourth
path is what I call 'Lifeboat Building,' and it means creating
communities of support and communities of service.
So that there are not just survivalist communities, but there are
communities preserving knowledge, information, skills, seeds, and then
teaching skills to people outside the community. So that that knowledge
is being disseminated, preserved, spread, and that way the outside
community will not break down the doors of these smaller preservationist
communities to get what they have, but will instead support them.
Because these are the most important people in our community, because
they have the skills, they have the knowledge that can help us to
And if we do that, if we go down that road, I think maybe in a few
generations, we could see a very different world, much more locally
organized world, with people living at a much slower pace and smaller
scale, but perhaps very survivably and very happily.
* * *
America's housing infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to the problem
of Peak Oil. Not only have we created a settlement pattern, namely
suburbia, that's entirely dependent on the automobile. But also, we've
built millions of houses that have to be heated with fossil fuels.
Mostly natural gas, also fuel oil in the Northeast, and natural gas is
going to be in just as short supply, perhaps even shorter supply than
oil in the years ahead, in North America. We're approaching a real
natural gas crisis.
So how are we going to heat all of these houses? Most of us are living
in places that get really cold in the winter. I mean, you really can
freeze to death in places like Iowa, and Minnesota, and upper New York
state. So, we're going to have to figure out an alternative to the
standard American house, and do it really quickly. We're going to have
to retrofit an awful lot of houses, but mainly, we just have to stop
building these things, and come up with a completely different solution
for how human beings should live.