Blog post

holding world in handsHumankind has control issues, and they’re about to get a lot worse.

As a species, we’ve developed remarkable power over our environments, and the process started a long time ago—with the harnessing of fire at least 200,000 years back and with the development of stone, bone, and wood tools during the past 50 millennia or so. Even our great grandparents were relatively powerless against the cold, the heat, famine, insects, diseases, and the rest of nature’s inconveniences when compared to ourselves.

Today, as the result of cheap energy and the technologies it fuels, we enjoy climate-controlled living and shopping areas; our physicians cure previously fatal illnesses; we conquer problems of distance and time without a thought or care.

When I say "we," I am of course referring to the collectivity of our kind: there are plenty of people in the world today who are still relatively powerless. But just knowing that some world leader, financier, inventor, or engineer is able to do a particular thing nurtures a shared sense of our growing, ultimately limitless capability. “We” can even redesign our own genes, eventually enabling us to conquer death itself.

The trajectory of our relationship with control is about to change. With the end of cheap fossil fuels, and therefore the end of cheap energy, our ability to control our environment begins to wane. This of course has abundant practical implications, but also a collective psychological, even spiritual impact.

Once we lived with a sense of our own limits. We may have been a hubristic kind of animal, but we knew that our precocity was contained within a universe that was overwhelmingly beyond our influence. That sensibility is about to return. Along with it will come a sense of frustration at finding many expectations dashed.

Will the waning of human control over the environment lead to a religious revival? Perhaps. Given our propensity for language-making and hence question-posing and story-telling, it is likely that many of us will find mythological lessons in this historic transformation (recall Icarus or Prometheus).

Whether or not it’s ultimately good for us morally to have a sense of limits, the reality is that our powers are indeed limited, and our ability to control our environment must ever be subordinated to the imperative to live in harmony with it.

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Reader Comments


Well that last comment about

From: Adan, Aug 27, 2008 05:15 PM

Well that last comment about survivalism, hoarding, and individualism certainly was scary, and typical of what I hear when this topic comes up. I think it is another version of the Armageddon myth we've all been reared upon, and although most are loath to admit it, is a scenario which many secretly hope for because it places us as the hero in our own "us vs. them" thriller. The scarcity mentality which is at the root of this scenario is the same which causes the problems of resource inequity and imperialism in the first place.

I propose instead letting go of some of that fear, relaxing, and trusting that with a little work and skill the simple and rewarding life that we had before oil was discovered is again attainable. Sure, I know there is more people now, but I've been in places, both inside and outside the U.S., where cooperation, not competition were the norm. Where people realize that none of us can survive by ourselves, and if we could, the result wouldn't be worth the effort. I've seen people happy for the success and fortune of their neighbors because they realize that ultimately that helps them as well. I've lived for many years in various environments at near self-sufficiency. It's not at all the grim picture often imagined, there's plenty of time left in the day for song and dance. So please, don't hoard and view your fellow humans as the enemy; our wealth and continued survival will, and has always come from cooperation, good will, and the productive capacity of the soil.

The world we cannot change

From: mycatisromeo, Aug 21, 2008 07:47 AM

I've talked to two religious people and they believe this: The second coming of Christ will pit good vs. evil, and those believing in God will be saved during the armegeddon. It is unavoidable, and any attempt to think otherwise is futile. I'm not a religious person, but I do believe this:

1.) Christians and other religious people beleive there is nothing they can do to change the future, therefore, most of them don't think about things such as Peak Oil. They don't think about things which make them feel uncomfortable or scared - instead they go to church and are reassured by the priest that things are set in motion and they cannot be changed - "don't loose faith in god."

2.) Making a major change in life is too much hassel. Life is too convenient and we don't want something to intrude on that.

I guess what I'm saying is: Educated, spritual (non-religious) people such as myself, Mr. Heinberg, and other people who care about making a change for a sustainable future, are the minority. There is no doubt, change will come.

Awakening people to the things which are to come, whether it be from Peak Oil, overpopulation, or pollution is practically wasted effort. People don't want to be pessimistic or realistic about the future. It would be as foolish to talk to them about Survivalism as it is about Peak Oil.

I've seen the worst of humankind. I've owned and operated a business and seen how a suburban housewife can lie to your face as she smiles. I've seen how most people only care about one thing - themselves. When this apocalypse comes that these Christians are talking about (some call it Peak Oil). I'll be guarding my food, land, and family with my weapons. Let the good and evil tear each other apart from starvation. We'll see who gets saved. The same guy who says he is your friend would kill you if he knew your food would keep him alive another day.

So, quietly and carefully, I vacuum seal non-perishable staple foods and gather ammunition, books, knowledge and supplies for the coming days. I'm highly educated and I also know the psychology of people very well. After all, we're only human. The Christians were right about one thing; the events set into motion are unchangeable - overpopulation, peak oil, and soon "world-wide famine."

The question is: Are you a good person - going to lay down and die when you are starving so you can be saved? Are you a bad person - going to fight till the end to survive, by any means, including cannibalism if it comes to it? Can you live with yourself if you do survive a collapse? These are moral conundrums. I believe the world will be filled with two kinds of people after the collapse

1.) People who have survivor's guilt who are generally good people.

2.) Savage, ethically unstable animals, who will loot, kill, and use violence by any means.

Imagine a post-industrial collapsed world without law enforcement.

A new mythyology?

From: Anonymous, Aug 19, 2008 10:21 PM

Sure, we'll have a spiritual reawakening. Too bad we'll first have to witness a disgorging of all the extreme hysterias of today's religious programming. How do you think the "Rapture" crowd is going to react when TSHTF and they've been "Left Behind"? They're going to get vicious and on the lookout for someone to blame. There will be a huge worldwide religious revival, but it will be loud, screaming, and scary. I think I'll just wander off into the woods when the time comes.

losing control

From: laurid, Aug 18, 2008 07:40 AM

is it losing control or rather seeing at last we had the illusion of controlling? I am inclined to think "we" were in the latter case, all the time. Now Nature ("we" had all along forgotten "we" are a part of) shows that our power is in no way a match to its power. And that's very fortunate indeed. When I a watch all these Hitler Bush Blair Sarkozy and all the rest of them I really feel good Nature is taking over.

Losing control that we never had

From: sponia, Aug 17, 2008 06:41 PM

Control is an illusion. We never were in control of anything - not even our own selves, mostly. What you really mean is losing the feeling of being in control. The world is not changing - what is changing is our beliefs, coming into closer alignment with reality. The shock of catastrophe reveals the weak spots in our internal model; 911 was not about a change in the world, but a change in our perception of the world. Post industrial society will lose some useless beliefs and aquire others instead. This is the nature of being human.

control issue

From: JCWhitefang, Aug 17, 2008 09:59 AM

To those feeling time is near, storm coming in.

Indeed we have no control over ourselves, our personal internal dialogue moving our feelings and thought all twisted, turning everyone into a petty little tyrant, the internal struggle limiting perception to a functional description of objects, making us week by draining our true personal power and life.

Now we find ourselves with backs against the wall, some will go from more and more complex machines to a rebirth of our being.

Self pity will be lethal early next decade when SHTF.

Men need sobriety above all, woman to loose worry practicalities and both to fear yet go on until first enemy is down, a form of self reflection and importance. Death and nature will teach us.

We need to learn how to save energy, get silent at command and learn to move with our whole being, link with spirit by getting aware of our energetic inorganic part living its life.

Now final stages of our collective suicide by consumption,

Survivors are bound to be more humble, and ruthless from lack of pity. Nature provides shelter and food for those intending survival and getting the new society on track.

We'll see the worst of humanity on massive scale, with the change people have to make and then live a far better life without the idiocy that is the mark of our doings.

Truth is internal, the world our minds create with our physical body is but a handy tool, a manageable description.

It makes you focus on me, me, me and the pseudo problems, worries and feelings. Now finally a real life or death issue with the first powerdown from lack of fuel, war, weather.....

A very learning experience on our hands, not enough seats for most of humankind, I do not see billions of humans in our future.

Only option is personal safety and preperation, best to have a huge backyard at your desposal and few good friends intending to form community after the crash. Hide deep in nature when houses are undefendable against the hungry and desperate.

Calm and sobriety do best when the going gets tough.

Allrighty then, let's get going. BC best, especially north.

Good Luck,


Resource Hoarding and Regenerative Systems

From: Noah Scales, Aug 16, 2008 12:32 PM

Mr. Heinberg, this "we" you refer to is the informed middle class, maybe, people who do not hoard nor set policies that concentrate wealth or resources, but who benefit from the current system that does, that benefit from cheap energy and the relatively unrestricted flow of wealth that participation in our economy allows.

In a future of shrinking resources, wealth and resources might concentrate while leaving the current laws of ownership and financial exchange intact.

If so, the shifting baseline of personal affluence and economic opportunity will show "we" a world of disparity in which oil is scarce, but we never understood differently. In that case, a personal call for "harmony" will be as unhelpful against economic pride and greed as it is now. It all depends on how sudden a change we experience. Peak oil proponents predict a matter of years, but even then, shifting baselines let us "forget" that we ever lived with cheap oil, just like it's hard for me to remember when my local beach didn't have water warning signs posted on it (about 15 years ago, I think). But ask me if I now live in harmony with the ocean. Nope.

New recycling technologies offer us hope (for example, pee and poop recycling for phosphorus) by creating a mindset that accounts for resource flows and conservation of flow inputs in semi-closed systems. That mindset will lend itself to ecological thinking, and make some kinds of rationales for appropriate behavior easier for everyone, whether rich or poor, to grasp.

Craig Pearson, in his Bioscience article, "Regenerative, Semiclosed Systems: A Priority for Twenty-First-Century Agriculture", makes several recommendations wrt to food that empower consumers to account for costs and resource flows that generate food products. His recommendations include:

* routine life-cycle analysis and costing

* measuring societal costs of inputs to production

* product labeling that describes energy and other inputs (for example, virtual water) used to produce the product

Those recommendations for regenerative systems give consumers a sense of the limits on their decision-making, the same way calorie information posted on a food product give you a sense of perspective about whether to eat it. I haven't read your books, so I don't know if you make similar suggestions, but I felt they were useful to share here.

Thanks for all that you do.