Blog post

Train WreckRemember the wall that environmentalists (like the 1972 "Limits to Growth" authors) have long been saying that industrial society would eventually hit? Permit me to make the formal introduction: Industrial society, meet wall; wall, meet industrial society.

It's understandably taking a while for the recognition to seep in. We are not accustomed to seeing every indicator of economic well-being, in virtually every country in the world, slam into reverse over the course of a few short months. I still have random conversations with businesspeople and bankers who say we've hit bottom and recovery is at hand; in their view, this is just another business cycle. I see things a bit differently: to my eyes the world situation looks like a slow-motion film of a train wreck, and the sheet metal at the front of the locomotive has only just begun to crumple.

Everything we thought we knew about the economy is suddenly wrong. Regarding China, we are accustomed to hearing of a new power plant being constructed each week, of energy consumption growing at a rate of 10 percent per year or more, of hordes of farmers from the western provinces rushing to the coastal cities to get manufacturing jobs so they can buy refrigerators and cars. The current reality: Chinese factories are now closing by the thousands, workers are rioting and leaving the coastal cities to return to their farms, energy consumption is actually declining.

In the US, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are falling dramatically for the first time since records have been kept. During past recessions or gas price spikes, people bought smaller cars or drove slower; now they're just not driving. Explanation? The use of public transit is up, but so is unemployment: people without jobs don't commute to work. And deliveries of raw materials and finished goods are way down, so trucks are driving less, too. Gasoline and diesel consumption is down. Nobody's buying cars—large OR small—and as a result GM, Ford, and Chrysler are on deathwatch (even the Japanese automakers are reeling). Retail businesses are closing so fast that it's tough to keep track of who's still open and who isn't.

Globalization was the one trend we could all count on in perpetuity (the world is flat, remember?), but now every metric of global trade is plummeting, and national leaders are worrying much less about lowering trade barriers than they are about how to protect their domestic economies from the cross-border plagues of currency collapse and banking failure.

Within a year or two we may even begin to see world population growth go into reverse—though not because of policy shifts.

We are in a new era. Welcome to the conclusion and consequences of the industrial growth bubble.

It's not the end of the world—yet. There is still opportunity to manage economic collapse in such a way as to lay the groundwork for a recovery to low-flow sustainability. But not if we concentrate our efforts on denial, blame, or the propping up of old institutions and industries that have no chance of survival—all of which are the obsessions of our current leadership.

A new economic world requires new institutions and new thinking. These will take a while to emerge. We can lay the conceptual groundwork now (as the ecological economists and localists have been doing for some time), but implementation will require cool heads and collective effort.

Meanwhile, individuals will need to protect themselves as best they can by developing social and practical coping skills: know your neighbors, garden, repair, make, and make do.

It would be nice to be able to offer a cheerier New Year's message, but here we are. It's more important to have a realistic view of our situation and prospects. It is nevertheless possible to hope for the best within those constraints, and I certainly do: 2009 is going to be a challenging year, but may you weather it well!

Like this post?

Keep the information flowing: Donate to Post Carbon Institute
Stay connected: Receive our monthly e-newsletter
Reposting: See our reposting policy

blog comments powered by Disqus

Reader Comments


Ecological Limits Law

From: Denis Frith, Feb 8, 2009 05:26 PM

Society is heading towards the brick wall because there is such a belief in the power of intangible money that the tangible reality is ignored - for now. Society would be better able to cope with the inevitable powering down if there were widespread understanding of two natural laws. The Dependence on Nature Law sums up the fact that the operation of all our systems entails irreversibly using up natural goods and services. Our day by day operations use up irreplaceable natural resources, like oil. They produce material wastes that do such damage as change the climate. They degrade many aspects of the operation of the ecosystem.These operations essentially entail invariably using natural capital.

The Ecological Limits Law sums up the fact that there is a limit to the available natural capital. This limit is approaching. Society will find it increasingly difficult to use up the natural capital at a high rate.

Lower consumption is GOOD, right?

From: Ralph Dratman, Feb 2, 2009 05:12 PM

Consumption is going down. That's exactly what we need to happen so that there will be excess capacity in energy extraction and in many other areas as well. With a plan to reach sustainability, we can then use some of the excess capacity to build the sustainable versions of infrastructure components.

So in a way we should actually be encouraged by the "recession" or whatever it is, because so far we have seen some "demand destruction" happen in a non-catastrophic way. That is, not too many people, yet, are literally starving or freezing, but overall consumption of energy is down. Good.

To take advantage of the situation, we have to start sharing resources among ourselves more fairly. The fact that someone lost a job should not mean that person's ability to survive goes to zero. Creating a modification (or complete rework) of the consumption side of the economic system in order to make that happen is going to be a very big job requiring political will and cooperation. This part of the needed change comes under "to each according to his needs," if you want to look back at Marx.

The other big obstacle is on the "from each according to his abilities" side. We need a system of allocating productive efforts toward constructive change rather than just building consumer goods and SUVs. The goal: When possible and within reason, build only sustainable goods and infrastructure and services. I am not referring to some Five Year Plan but rather to sane economic incentives in the right directions.

A third area, related to both of the above, that needs great improvement is information dissemination. We need to replace bad social propaganda (consume!) with good (sustain!). But that's outside the main point I'm trying to make here, albeit very awkwardly.

Dependence on Nature Law

From: Denis Frith, Jan 31, 2009 02:58 AM

Peak oil may well be a trigger point for the inevitable powering down. But it is just one of the components in the irreplaceable natural material resources (INMR)- natural capital that civilization is totally dependent on using for their operations. It includes using up the limited natural goods and services, like those providing energy.It includes producing material wastes that are harming the health of many species as well as the climate. It includes degrading biodiversity and geodiversity. There would be a better prospect of society coping with the powering down if there were widespread recognition of the Dependence on Nature Law.

Human Carrying Capacity and the 2008 Financial Meltdown

From: John Van Doren, Jan 29, 2009 12:51 PM

Here is a link to an interesting article on the Sustainable Home blog that follows a similar thread.

After the train wreck -

From: Jim Bloomfield, Jan 6, 2009 09:57 PM

After the train wreck, it will soon become vogue to be frugal (at least in the western world). China and India will have to find new markets for its' cheap goods and services. They will encourage consumption in their own countries by taxing savers and savings. This will lead to rising demand, which will inflate the costs of commodities. Rising commodities prices, will spur recycle, reuse and reduce innovations. I believe, the new frugal west, will take the lead in these innovations.

Unfortunately, the recovery in the western world will be slow and may not even feel like a recovery at all. There is no quick fix here, as President Obama will soon discover during his presidency. In the meantime, the coping skills describe by DR. Heinberg are right on the mark and may I add...also find some good books to read.


From: Vicky, Jan 6, 2009 07:37 PM

I remember when I read Limits to Growth eons ago and was struck by the fact that no matter how they manipulated the data by increasing positive factors the scenarios all eventually crashed, even if it was from different limiting factors. An existential nausea was produced.

In the intervening years I have thought about the history of the human animal as the wild animal that domesticated itself in the process of domesticating nature. This domestication created social and technological advantages, which in turn allowed for population growth that has become exponential.

As much as I love the idea of sustainable slow through put solutions to the dilemma we are now in, I have very little confidence that we could successfully transition to this ideal. The economic situation right now is just a tiny blip compared to a real crash. Not that an economic meltdown won't have dire consequences for many people.

Short term fiddling with government regulations can have some positive effect. I think Obama has been influenced by Al Gore and he seems to understand that solutions should do more than one thing. Such as, transition to non-carbon based fuels/energy helps reduce the worst case scenario of global warming and going to war over oil.

Even those of us that have been thinking about all these related issues for over 30 years cannot grasp anything but the reduced use of resources and increased local self-sufficiency as solutions. In the short-term I think this will work for some of us, but it doesn't get to the heart of a world population bubble expected to increase markedly before it stabilizes. A population crash also has dire economic consequences too when the economies are tightly linked.

Our self-domestication makes us extremely vulnerable, just as our domesticated plants and animals require specialized care to survive. We don't know how to survive without trade in goods, and without modern medicine we would die young just like our ancestors did. And the environment can no longer support even the small numbers of hunter gatherers that it did pre-agriculture.

We live in interesting times. Maybe we have hit the front of engine.

slo-mo mo-jo

From: Jerry McManus, Jan 6, 2009 07:18 PM

Not only is the front of the train just beginning to crumple, but because of the massive momentum (feedback delay in the language of complex systems) the opportunity to begin stopping, or even turning the train passed decades ago. Oops!



Most people...

From: Jack Russell, Jan 6, 2009 02:10 PM

Most of the people in the world aren't thinking this way. They only see their little microcosm of the world around them, and while things may be going wrong right now, their desire is to have things fixed again so that things work the same way they did before.

It isn't until you step back a bit and view the world as a whole, and see that the problems are worldwide that it becomes apparent that the status quo isn't going to work. But even then many people are still strongly clinging to their old belief systems, and even when the evidence is in front of their noses they still refuse to give up.

I suppose if we were offering an image of a rosy future of some sort, it would be an easier sell. But people quickly grasp the nature of the things that need to change and the things they need to give up, and denial kicks into overdrive.

In the short term I expect that people will continue to struggle for quite a while. Gradually they will lose faith in the current growth-oriented thinking. What they will replace it with is very hard to say however.

Great insights

From: roccman, Jan 6, 2009 08:31 AM

Great insights Richard!

500MPH into a brick wall...


From: Jan Steinman, Jan 5, 2009 05:29 PM

Richard, I've been a fan of your whip-saw theory, a form of "punctuated equilibrium," except in this case, it won't be equilibrium, but a downward trend.

In this scenario, multiple recessions happen, interspersed with wildly optimistic growth, fueled by the low energy prices brought on by the previous recession.

With oil 1/4th of what it was not so long ago, do you still see that happening, or is this truly The Big One from which civilization will not return?

Knowing there is still a lot of fossil energy in the ground, I fear that, however bad the current situation may seem, it is still just the warm-up-act, and that ~$40/barrel oil will bring civilization back to its non-senses.

Mr. Heinberg, do you think,

From: Dejan, Jan 5, 2009 02:41 PM

Mr. Heinberg, do you think, is it possible that mainstream economists ever see that wall? And when that could happen?

Probably is possible, but too late.


From: Sololeum, Jan 5, 2009 01:55 PM

"It's not the end of the world—yet. There is still opportunity to manage economic collapse in such a way as to lay the groundwork for a recovery to low-flow sustainability."

I'm not real sure that any top-down model will work - as I've been saying for the last 10 years - look after you and yours' the BAU crowd will never get the message.

If enough change their way of life to living closer to the land and using way less stuff then the world will change - grass roots - bottom up approach, which in all history is the way it has always worked - even "in vi et armis" has had limited effects as opposed to cultural changes!!