Coming ‘round To Heinberg

Even though he has dismissed the survivalist response to peak oil, I have up to now found Richard Heinberg’s writing on the crisis to be too extreme for me; too thin a veil covers his implied future of families escaping dystopian cities in search of safer regions.

The vision of the future which Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, suggests, is one where with sufficient, timely action we have successfully transitioned to a lifestyle free of dependence on fossil fuels. It is one little changed from today other than the fact that we use renewable sources of energy for everything, including our personal transportation and all forms of shipping. Most people would be happy with this and I am confident it is the tomorrow the majority of North Americans assume. Let’s call this “Green World”.

Or it could be a future much less palatable to most folks: “Amish World”.

Amish World, a lifestyle of almost absolute self-sufficiency and local community focus, is the inevitable result of failing to replace oil with alternative sources of energy and their requisite distribution systems before oil became too expensive to maintain the life to which we had become accustomed. We can no longer use oil to operate cars, heat buildings or transport goods by container ships from China, food by trucks and ferries from Florida to Vancouver Island or coal by rail to electrical power generating plants. Oil has become too expensive to fuel the globalized economy which as a result has shifted into reverse.

And there is a critical link in the chain of history that will break if we have failed to put alternative energy sources in place before oil becomes prohibitively expensive: after we have entered the gap, we will no longer have the energy required to manufacture and install those alternative generating and distribution systems.

Consider this analogy. During the Second World War, by presidential decree all automobile production in the U.S. was stopped for three years and instead of producing cars America’s automotive plants produced tanks, bombers and landing craft. But what if instead of experiencing the crisis of peak oil now, we were already well into it then, in 1942? What would have become of the U.S. response to Nazi Germany in that case? As you can imagine, our success or failure to rise to the challenge of our own time, and successfully navigate the gap, will equally lead to alternative futures of historic proportions.

Assuming no other major changes in global socioeconomics, if we fail to navigate the gap, our culture will simply go back to the point at which the oil revolution began; about 1850, the days of the steam locomotive and the horse and buggy.

The complicating factor in this model is that it is abundant energy in the form of oil that enables our planet to support the current population of 7 billion. If we have failed to put alternative energy sources in place in time the global population will decline to what it was in 1850, about 1 billion. Most of this will be the result of starvation, because the connecting link between oil and population growth is food production.

It is not only the worlds poor who would be effected by this depopulation; without oil, many of the high “quality of life” factors the G8 nations enjoy would be dramatically diminished. As a result of a much more physically demanding daily life combined with a reduction in the infrastructure, equipment and medicines required to deal with disease and injury, life expectancy in the G8 nations would drop dramatically.

However we cannot assume “no other major changes in global socioeconomics”. In fact, based on the current trends with regard to water use, climate change, overfishing, failing states and their associated horsemen, we can instead assume there will be other factors in play which will only make a negative contribution to the situation.

I do not see the signs that we will successfully navigate the gap in a timely manner and so, unlike the majority of North American’s who assume a Green World future which will allow them to carry on with business as usual, I am now more inclined to agree with Heinberg’s view; a descent into a period of dystopia, leading at best to an Amish World emerging in the latter half of this century or in some future century. After the fall of Rome in the 4th century, the Dark Ages in Western Europe lasted 400 years and for the Roman Empire there never was a “recovery”.

As I travel around Vancouver Island, the breathtakingly beautiful island that is my home, I find myself enveloped in a cognitive dissonance because everything looks fine. I am reminded however of exponential math and of author Lester Brown’s tale of the 29th day; how everything looks fine right up to the day before the last day. I am reminded of how we humans think in linear terms but nature does not and with what hubris we strut, knowing so little about the things upon which our lives depend. I am reminded of the fact that research has shown that dramatic climate changes like ice ages and their retreat do not necessarily take centuries or millennia but can happen in the course of a single decade.

We are running out time for Hopkin’s vision. I am now inclined to expect something initially not as bad as “The Road”, but also not quite as good as Amish World.  I am now inclined to think Heinberg is right and that we must individually prepare at a more basic level; not for Green World or Amish  World, but for the gap, for what I call, “Pioneer World”. What does that look like in concrete terms? Three to six months food and supplies and the knowledge and equipment required to live off the grid; the of the ability to survive a season or two, until we, as individuals and communities, learn once again to be self sufficient.

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