Richard Heinberg will be a familiar name to anyone who has ever looked into peak oil, either through his books, ‘Powerdown’ and ‘The Party’s Over’, or as a regular contributor to documentaries. This, his latest book, is a series of essays based around the idea of a century of decline. Peak oil we know about, but population will also peak, one way or another. So will non-renewable resources like copper, platinum, and gold. Water shortages,soil erosion and falling grain harvests may also present us with ‘peaks’ of production.
“Our starting point,” writes Heinberg, “is the realization that we are today living at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history – an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible. Now that the most important of those sources are entering their inevitable sunset phase, we are at the beginning of a period of overall societal contraction.”
The facts about peak oil, and the solutions, have already been written about (and overlooked) elsewhere. Heinberg is more concerned here with life after the peak, with the nature of the transition – what kind of culture will emerge, how will we cope? Some of the essays here are very speculative, interesting asides that clearly didn’t fit into other books. There’s a chapter on the possible aesthetics of post-industrial design for example, or the psychology of language.
Less esoterically, there’s a useful chapter on farming, as “re-ruralization will be a dominant social trend of the 21st century.” He also addresses population, expounds five ‘axioms of sustainability’, reflects on the legacy of the ‘boomer’ generation, and helpfully maps some of the intersections of climate change and peak oil campaigning.
The idea of a global downsize is a recurring one, very similar to the idea of making wealth history, which is good to see, and he recommends Transition Towns as an emerging movement inspiring the right kind of sale.
Those wanting more on peak oil are better off with previous books, and there’s no detail on the ‘peak everything’ hinted at in the title. It is nevertheless a thoughtful and diverse set of ideas from one of the sharpest minds working on resource depletion. I’ll give Heinberg the last words:
“We are growing our population, destroying habitat, undermining global climatic stability and depleting resources in ways and at rates that cannot be mitigated by any new tool or energy source. The only way forward that does not end with the extinction of humanity and thousands or millions of other species is a scaling back of the entire human project – in terms both of human numbers and per-capita rates of consumption.”