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Book cover

Book cover

First, some background: Richard Heinberg is an American academic who has written extensively on environmental and economic issues. He works at the Post Carbon Institute and his previous books include ‘Peak Everything’, ‘The Party’s Over’ and ‘Power Down’, all of which look at resource depletion and particularly at our reliance on fossil fuels. This new book draws together many of those issues but looks at them from the perspective of our current recession.

The essential message of the book is that a number of factors are coming together which will mean that there is no long term prospect of continuing to live the way that we do at the moment. Those factors are:

  • Resource Depletion: many of Richard’s earlier books detail the background to peak oil. It is sobering to realise the extent to which our whole way of life is dependent on fossil fuels, from industrialisation to agriculture to transportation, through to the more mundane uses that we take for granted. Our society relies on the huge amounts of stored energy that are being released in the use of fossil fuels and it is that which allows our planet to support a population of seven billion, when the sustainable level is something like two to three billion. The discovery of this energy source has been likened to the humankind winning the lottery – unfortunately it has largely been squandered for short term gain.

While oil is the bedrock of our society, the extent to which we are using up other, non-renewable resources may not be as widely known. The book details a whole host of other irreplaceable elements and compounds that we are rapidly depleting.

  • Environmental Impacts: the effects of extraction and use of resources on the environment has also been well documented and is likely to worsen.
  • Financial Disruptions: a key element of the book’s argument is that the current socio-economic system is reliant on growth that can no longer be sustained. The scale of the world economy that has been created as a result of the availability of the cheap energy source that is fossil fuels means that it has to rely on debt; money is created by debt and to pay the interest on that debt requires constant growth. If the earth’s resources are finite, then it stands to reason that such growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. If it is a bubble that is reliant on oil and oil is running out, then it would seem that we are reaching that stage.

The book goes on to look at the likely effects of innovation and substitution. Having come to the conclusion that these cannot bridge the gaps that are starting to show, it looks at some possible scenarios if nothing is done to change the way that we live. It then moves to look at possible approaches to managing the problem. The conclusion is that we must look to create a sustainable society with a steady-state economy based on more responsible use of our natural resources.

That is all well and good but it begs the question why this is not being addressed in any serious manner by the world’s governments. An interesting part of the book looks at why that may be the case. It cites research that shows that selfish behaviour is an innate survival mechanism that is hard-wired into our brains: we would much rather take a short term reward than plan ahead. Is there any hope? There are learned behaviours of self-restraint and empathy for others but the depressing conclusion is that the short-term, selfish view is likely to prevail until such time as the situation worsens to the extent that action is better than no action. Unfortunately, by then it may well be too late!

This is only a very brief overview of the book. It is meticulously researched and the arguments are well presented. I would urge everyone to read it; if anyone wants to borrow my copy, please get in touch.

Gary Lowe.

published by Clairview (ISDN 978 1 905570 33 1)