Big changes in store

Environmental journalist brings daunting predictions to Chico

Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

The Industrial Revolution is ending. Our ongoing efforts to expand and consume cannot continue. We’re using up the energy sources that enabled this lifestyle, and the world as we know it is changing. We will spend the rest of our lives creating and adapting to that change.

That in a nutshell was the message delivered in a 90-minuter lecture Tuesday (April 24) by author and journalist Richard Heinberg. A senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a Santa Rosa-based think tank, Heinberg addressed about 200 people—a mixture of students on assignment, professors and members of the general public—inside Chico State’s Colusa Hall.

Thin, articulate and witty, Heinberg delivered his message in not so much a grim way, considering the subject, but rather as a realistic glimpse into where we are headed.

“I’m sorry to have to bring you some less than beautiful news,” he began, “but my talk tonight is going to be about our economy and its prospects, and I have to tell you that the news is not good. For too long we’ve considered the environment a subset of the economy, when in fact the economy is a subset of the environment.”

The author of books whose titles include Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis and The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies said he hoped to explain why the economy is doing what it is doing, where it is headed and how we can adapt to it.

Economic expansion, he said, is a fairly recent phenomenon. “We like to think that it is normal and natural and that all economies do this as if by magic, but in fact it’s been happening only over the past couple of centuries.”

Connected to the expansion of economic growth is the explosion in population.

“There were fewer than a billion humans at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago,” Heinberg said. “We passed the 7 billion mark just recently. That is an extraordinary rate of population growth.”

Not coincidently, he pointed out, at the same time there’s been a tremendous growth in energy consumption. He argues that having access to great amounts of cheap energy has enabled the growth of both the economy and the population.

“The economy is all about energy. Without energy nothing happens, by definition. If we want to increase economic activity, if we want to do more stuff, we’ve got to have more energy to do it with.”

Humans have been using solar energy for hundreds of thousands of years as gathered by green plants and turned into firewood, food and agriculture. “Sunlight is an almost limitless source of energy, by human standards,” Heinberg said. “But the amount we are actually able to gather and use in the form of firewood and agricultural products is limited. So the size of our economies was limited.”

Until relatively recently, that is. Once we invented the tools that allowed us to extract fossil fuels—gears and pumps and other machinery—we gained access to sources of energy that had been created by nature over the course of tens of millions of years.

“Once we found practical ways to mine coal and pump oil out of the ground, it seemed as though the sky was the limit. How it changed us.”

He brought up this analogy: Think about the last time you ran out of gas in your car and you had to push it to the side of the road. That is hard work. But what about pushing your car 20 or 30 miles? That would take six to eight weeks of hard labor to accomplish,” he said.

“We can get that done for us with a single gallon of gas for which we pay $4 and some change. And we are complaining. Think about that: Six or eight weeks of hard labor is the energy equivalent of $4.50 or whatever it is here. What a bargain.”

We’ve used fossil fuels, he said, to mechanize our entire society over the past couple of hundred years. That has given us an enormous payoff in the form of economic growth. But that way off life will soon disappear as fossil fuel is depleted.

“World peak oil decline could begin in the next five to 10 years,” Heinberg warned.

He mentioned climate change.

“I know we can’t talk about climate change in this country because one of our two political parties has decided that it’s a big fraud, so I won’t. I’ll just mention the weird weather. And if you don’t take my word for it, go talk to an insurance executive because they’re studying it very closely.”

He said there are simple solutions that must come “bottom up from the community.” Those would include ride sharing, community currencies as opposed to federal currency, more people growing food, one-stop shops at central locations.

The great transitions in human society have been fire, language, agriculture and the Industrial Revolution.

“What is next?” he asked. “The sustainability revolution? I don’t know. It’s learning to live within natural limits. There are no easy answers. It is the project we will be working on for the rest of our lives.”