Post-growth economics

On Richard Heinberg’s interesting book about unsustainability of economic growth

Life after peak oil.

Life after peak oil.

Post-growth economics
I am about halfway through reading The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, by Richard Heinberg, and I am moved to share some salient passages from the excellent book with GreenHouse readers. Heinberg, as some will remember, was brought to Chico State by the university’s Institute for Sustainable Development on April 24 of last year to deliver a talk with the very same name as this book (see The GreenHouse, April 19, 2012). He is senior fellow-in-residence at Santa Rosa’s Post-Carbon Institute and “a leading educator on peak oil,” as his website,, aptly puts it.

Here’s Heinberg:

“Here is economic history compressed into one sentence. As societies have grown more complex, larger, more far-flung and diverse, the tribe-based gift economy has shrunk in importance, while the trade economy has grown to dominate most aspects of people’s lives, and has expanded in scope to encompass the entire planet. Is this progress or a process of moral decline? Philosophers have debated the question for centuries. Approve or disapprove, it is what we have done.”


“The subsuming of land within the category of capital by nearly all post-classical economists had amounted to a declaration that Nature is merely a subset of the human economy—an endless pile of resources to be transformed into wealth.”

As well as:

“The massive worldwide economic growth of the past two centuries was enabled by humanity’s newfound ability to exploit cheap, abundant energy of fossil fuels.”

On the oil industry:

Playing with numbers.

“Despite its habitual use of the terms ‘produce’ and ‘production,’ the industry doesn’t make oil, it merely extracts the stuff from finite stores in the earth’s crust.”

On water use in Kern County, in California’s Central Valley:

“The local agriculture is highly water-intensive: For Kern County farmers to produce a single orange requires 55 gallons of water, while each peach takes 142 gallons. As a result of the drought, tens of thousands of acres of Kern County farmland were idled.”

More on water:

“As snowpack disappears, farmers, ranchers, and cities make up for the loss of running surface water by pumping more from wells. But in many cases this just trades one long-term problem for another: depleting aquifers.”

The financial sector:

“Perhaps the meteoric rise of the finance economy in the past couple of decades resulted from a semi-conscious strategy on the part of society’s managerial elites to leverage the last possible increments of growth from a physical, resource-based economy that was nearing its capacity. In any case, the implications of the current economic crisis cannot be captured by unemployment statistics and real estate prices. Attempts to restart growth will inevitably collide with natural limits that simply don’t respond to stimulus packages or bailouts.”

I look forward to upcoming chapters (not with glee, but more in a forewarned-is-forearmed sense): “Shrinking Pie: Competition and Relative Growth,” “Managing Contraction, Redefining Progress” and “Life after Growth.”

Get yourself a copy and let’s have a conversation.

No one deserves to live in a world built upon the degradation of human beings, forests, waters, and the rest of our living planet. Speaking to our brethren on Wall Street: No one deserves to spend their lives playing with numbers while the world burns. —Charles Eisenstein