Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.
The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:
“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]
This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.
New resource recommendation: Zero Carbon, an excellent weekly newsletter in which climate correspondent Chris Hatch sorts through the kaleidoscope of news, ideas, politics and culture to figure out what’s working in the race against climate change. You can subscribe at the National Observer link above.
This week’s issue begins with a focus on the new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which says that on the “narrow path” to net zero, “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply.” Needless to say, the fossil fuel industries are not welcoming the news. The newsletter covers some other responses to it and the data behind it.
My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)
In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.
Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.
I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.
We are living in transformative times. The title of this blog post is the title of an essay by Richard Heinberg which is exactly what the title says. I can’t think of anything else i’ve read that says so much that is so important right now in so few words. This is truly essential reading.
Inkling of the day, and Richard Heinberg’s
final point: life is about more than survival.
Richard Heinberg shows in a new article that the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources is still going much too slowly to save us from our own bad habits.
Locally, though, i’m happy to report that we at gnusystems have powered nearly all of our transportation this spring with solar energy. We’ve been charging the BatBolt, our electric car, with our solar panels, adding up to 30 km of range every sunny day. For more details, have a look at the video introduction to EV driving (mostly for rural drivers) I posted on Youtube. Considering your transport options in the near future? EVs can be an important part of the transition, and not as expensive as you might think.
The “energy crisis” of the 1970s was all about the supply (and the price) of fossil fuels. Looking back on it half a century later, it’s clear that the real crisis was (and is) the human addiction to fossil fuels, which we in the “developed” world have been unable to shake off. Now the “climate emergency” is forcing us – those of us who are not mired in denial – to see that we have become dependent not only on the use and abuse of oil, but also on the infrastructure which it made possible.
The only cure for this chronic disease is to build a new infrastructure, and adopt a new “lifestyle”, that can be powered mostly by renewable energy sources. Nothing less can mitigate the fourfold crisis (of ecology, economy and equity as well as energy) which now threatens the viability of life on earth. This has to be part of the “Green New Deal”, but we aren’t always realistic about the challenge of actually doing it at this stage of the game.
A recent article on the Uneven Earth site explains it all quite succinctly. I recommend it, especially to proponents of a Green New Deal or equivalent policy.
On the matter of “lifestyles” (as we used to call them back in the 20th century), I will close with a reflection from Bill McKibben, in his book Falter. He says that of all the lives on Earth, the most curious
are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.