Blog post

earth puzzleHi. My job is trying to save the world, and I’d like to tell you a little about my line of work.

First, it’s a job I enjoy. I get to feel good about what I do, and I meet a lot of smart, interesting people. I get to travel to exciting places to attend conferences, and at least some people respect my efforts (though many others think I’m crazy or misguided).

It’s not all a bed of roses. The biggest problems with trying to save the world are: first, that it doesn’t always seem to want to be saved; and second, that those of us trying to save it can’t agree on why it needs saving or how to go about doing so. Let me explain.

When I say “save the world,” I mean preventing human civilization from collapsing in a chaotic, violent way that would entail enormous amounts of suffering and death. I also mean preserving the natural world, so as to minimize species extinctions and the loss of wild habitat. I regard both of these priorities as about equally important, since they are closely interrelated: if civilization collapses chaotically, billions of people will do an enormous amount of damage to remaining ecosystems in their desperate attempts at survival; and if nature goes first, that means civilization will go too, because we rely on ecosystem services for everything we do.

But not everyone who works full-time at saving the world has the same balance of priorities. There are some world-savers who are only (or primarily) concerned about human welfare. Some of these folks are just interested in saving people’s souls by getting them to subscribe to some set of beliefs or other: for them, the world needs “saving” because it is wicked. Others are concerned with human rights or economic justice or international conflict; for them, the biggest threats to our survival are from other people. Then there are those who have concluded that our survival challenge is primarily of an environmental kind: the disappearance of polar bears or honey bees, or the logging of rainforests, or the depletion of resources, or the contamination of the atmosphere or the oceans.

This is a problem. If all of us world-savers can’t get on the same page about what’s wrong, our efforts are likely to lack coherence, or might even cancel one another out. There are no doubt full-time humanitarians who believe that the world needs to be saved from people like me!—from people, that is, who are non-believers and who insist that the size of the human population has to be reduced.

Moreover, if we professional world-savers can’t agree on what the problem is, how do we know there is a problem in the first place? Might the world be better off if we spent our personal energies elsewhere—figuring out how to get rich, or teaching elementary school, or inventing the next generation of social networking software?

Well, I’m obviously personally convinced that the world has some unprecedented challenges on its hands, or I wouldn’t be in this line of work. I could write at great length (as I have elsewhere) about what these challenges are, how they arose, and what we should be doing about them, but there’s no need to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that I think that we humans, by our very nature, and by the rules of biological existence, will always have problems of fairly predictable kinds, but we have recently gained access to concentrated but depleting non-renewable energy sources that have enabled us to grow our population and appetites for commodities of various sorts to utterly unsustainable levels; and in the process of burning carbon-based fuels we have set in motion a process of climate change that is rapidly spiraling out of control. This is going to be a tough set of problems to solve, because it involves changing people’s lifestyles and expectations, sharing nature’s dwindling bounty of non-renewable resources rather than fighting over the crumbs, and finding ways to reduce population proactively without interfering too much with human rights.

To me, all of this seems obvious, steeped as I am in data showing the limits to various resources, the likely consequences of continued economic and population growth, and the rapidly worsening damage to our environment (and hence to our planet’s ability to support future generations of humans). But I often meet sincere, dedicated people who see things quite differently.

Given that there isn’t a consensus among us, can we world-savers accomplish anything useful?

Well, there is something of a consensus after all. These days most environmentalist world-savers seem to be focused on the problem of climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, almost to the exclusion of any other concern. If you ever happen to attend a meeting of environmental activists, you are likely to hear nearly every discussion turn on carbon dioxide emissions—emissions reduction targets, emissions reduction strategies, future emissions scenarios, and climate sensitivity to various levels of emissions. But even within the increasingly numerous and vocal anti-carbon crowd, there are differences of opinion regarding tactics: some (like Dr. James Hansen of NASA, arguably the nation’s top climate scientist) support carbon taxes, reasoning that cap-and-trade policies will take too long to negotiate and can be gamed in various ways; others (like author Bill McKibben, arguably the nation’s top climate activist) support caps, reasoning that new taxes of any kind are a non-starter for political reasons, at least here in the US (don’t worry: Hansen and McKibben are still friends).

Many mainstream environmental organizations back the notion of a carbon market, in which permits to emit CO2 would be auctioned and traded; but Friends of the Earth has come out with a paper titled “Subprime Carbon,” arguing that a market in carbon permits will result in “futures contracts to deliver carbon that carry a relatively high risk of not being fulfilled,” leading to a carbon bubble and an eventual collapse in value. While “world-savers” funded by the big energy conglomerates (I put the term in quotes this time because while these folks act like the genuine article in many respects, their real priority is not to save the human or natural world, but merely some company or industry) want carbon permits to be given away to existing polluters, nearly everyone else thinks the permits should be auctioned. Most existing US congressional cap-and-trade bills (like Waxman-Markey) mandate that proceeds from the auctions should go to government, but many activists (like Peter Barnes, author of Capitalism 3.0) say that the proceeds should be distributed equally to all citizens to help defray the increased energy costs that will result from carbon caps.

US climate policy will soon be decided by Congress, and a global policy will then be hashed out in Copenhagen, so environmentalist world-savers are working overtime these days to get their proposals and perspectives heard.

The fact that so many of us are now focused on one problem is good, especially since it is indeed a survival issue. But I fear that some essential details are being overlooked in the process. Here’s a key example.

Reducing carbon emissions essentially means using less coal, oil, and gas (since carbon capture and sequestration is arguably unrealistic on any substantial scale, other than by reforestation and regenerative agricultural practices). Since “clean” sources of energy probably can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels entirely, this means the world will have less energy to go around. (It will no doubt soon have less to go around in any case, because fossil fuels are non-renewable and depleting, and we’ve probably already passed the peak of world oil production—but don’t get me started on that.)

Historically, there has been a very close correlation between energy consumption growth and economic growth, so with less energy available it may not be possible to continue growing the global economy in customary ways. Almost nobody in the climate community wants to talk about that, because the very suggestion that strong, effective climate policies will have a significant economic cost makes such policies far less palatable to folks on Main Street, and certainly to politicians. But I think we should be giving this matter a lot of attention no matter how inconvenient it may be: the fact is, we have an economy that’s designed only to grow; if it stops growing—as has happened over the past six months—the results are perceived as catastrophe. If world energy supplies are set to contract, we need a different kind of economy, one that can still function with a stable or declining throughput of materials and energy. But we’re not even going to start trying to design one until more people start telling the truth about where we’re headed.

This points up one of the dilemmas that go along with trying to save the world: should one just tell the truth fearlessly, or try to frame one’s message so as to make it generally acceptable? The two options aren’t always mutually exclusive, but neither are they exactly the same thing. You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.

It’s a tough balance. If you tell the truth to a fault, you don’t get invited to policy seminars, and politicians avoid you like the plague. If you sugar coat the message, you have to live with the knowledge that the vast majority of people on our planet have almost no awareness of what is about to happen to them, and you aren’t telling them. Some of us in the world-saving business naturally gravitate to one side of the spectrum or the other, and I try to be respectful about why people make their choices in this regard. I like to think I’m more toward the “tell the truth regardless” end of the continuum, but in certain situations I find myself hedging in order to get along.

So being a world-saver is partly a matter of politics and public relations. That’s not what drew me to this line of work; but, now that I’m in it, I realize what comes with the territory.

What’s the job like on a day-to-day basis? Well, there’s a lot of time spent at the computer—endless emails, keeping up with relevant news feeds, plus a relentless writing schedule. I’m often on the phone talking to reporters or interviewers, gaining support for programs, trying to build coalitions. Ironically, I find myself on airplanes disturbingly often, traveling to conferences or lectures, emitting tons of carbon as I go. If you were just to watch my actions without being able to understand any of the language I’m employing, you might think I’m doing approximately the same work as a high-powered salesman of some kind. That’s not at all comforting for me to think about. Other world-savers spend their time differently—running demonstration projects of various kinds, doing bio-remediation, or organizing their communities.

How secure is my job? Whenever bad things happen to the environment, people start paying attention to it. The anti-nuke movement could wave a tentative victory banner after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Peak Oil movement got a big boost in 2008 when the price of oil shot up to nearly $150 a barrel. And the climate movement gets attention whenever there’s a severe weather event, or when some new report documents that arctic ice is disappearing. In general, lots of matters we all care about are bound to get a lot worse in the foreseeable future (sorry to say this, folks, but we’re in for one hell of a century), so business for us world-savers could pick up smartly.

On the other hand, I have no retirement package (though who does, these days?). And just about all the non-profit organizations that I know of are hurting badly because of the Great Recession. Indeed, the current economic crisis is a very big problem for the world-saving industry. Just about all of our money comes from philanthropic foundations, and most of those foundations have a lot less money to dole out than they did a year ago. (Granted, a lot of world-savers already work for free, and many that are currently getting paid will continue to do what they can when their budgets run out; but it’s difficult to get much done with no money at all, and everyone has bills to pay.)

Also, the average family is less likely to get excited about an environmental issue when its economic survival is at question; indeed, people’s very ability to look ahead and focus on large, complex issues begins to falter. “Polar bears? Who Cares! Just give me my job back!”

Another strange wrinkle: this financial crisis underscores the unpleasant truth that business-as-usual simply can’t continue. It’s no longer a matter of telling folks to stop consuming so much; they’re now finding they literally can’t afford to buy cars, travel, and do all the other things that entail carbon emissions. Should we environmental world-savers change our message accordingly? I don’t hear much discussion among my colleagues along those lines; instead, speakers at climate conferences seem hardly to have noticed that global trade is down, global employment is down, global energy use is down.

But hang on: if world energy use has been declining for the past few months, that should mean that carbon emissions are declining, too. (Note: According to NOAA, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still rising—is there a time lag, or is there some other explanation for this discrepancy between declining energy use and rising CO2 concentrations?) Let’s assume that measurements later this year indeed show atmospheric CO2 levels to be rising slower than before. Trying to explain why something that’s very good for the environment should be correlated with something that’s very bad and painful for ordinary people is understandably awkward, so the possibility that emissions are now declining is hardly being mentioned. But if emissions are truly falling and continue to do so—not because of climate policies, but because of global economic contraction—sooner or later we’ll have to start addressing the fact. And we’d better have a good story. In my view, the fact that the climate movement is being blindsided by this turn of events only underscores the need for a bit more truth-telling about the linkages between energy and the economy.

Are we succeeding? Is the world better off because we’re trying to save it? Well, maybe my opinion is inherently biased, given what I do for a living. As disappointed as I sometimes get about the near-futility of trying to wake my fellow citizens up to the fact that we’re collectively driving straight toward history’s biggest cliff, I don’t see anything better to do with my time. Nor do I see any better hope for humanity than the efforts of the tiny number of our species who understand at least some aspect of our predicament enough to explain it to their fellows and formulate some strategic responses to it.

Would I recommend this line of work to others—to students looking for a career? You bet. There are certainly many other worthwhile things to do with one’s life, but at a time like this we need all the help we can get.

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Reader Comments



From: Alexandra Ormsby, Nov 29, 2009 04:25 PM

I really appreciate your article about your work, and was referred to your site by Bill Ryerson, who is concerned about population "overgrowth", as I am. I have one view to point out -- someone wrote somewhere recently that the average person cannot name 5 trees, but can name 10 movie stars or sports stars. I tried a little experiment in my county office workplace, and it is true. No one knew the name of the tree growing in their yard, or on their block; as we looked out the 16th floor window, they could identify palm trees, but missed Jacarandas, Indian figs, Chilean pines, Caribbean coral trees, So. Cal. sycamores, etc. Movie stars galore were named. The problem, as I see it, is that the lower third or half of the population has no connection whatsoever with the natural world. They wouldn't have a clue what "carbon emissions" even means. Until we can get real biology taught in schools instead of "microbiology" which everyone forgets the day the class is over, we will never make an impact on their minds that global warming is happening. Oh, and the other things I noticed -- where do they go on vacation? To Yosemite? Sequoia? Even the Grand Canyon? No -- to Las Vegas. They think I am an intrepid world traveler because I have visited all three, well, plus Vegas as well, on my way to Zion and Bryce. This is the real picture we are faced with. I hope you have a solution. I'm just reporting the problem as I see it. Keep us the great work -- wish I could go to conferences instead of file police reports at the District Attorney's office. Blessings, Alexandra

growth economies

From: dono, Nov 29, 2009 12:33 AM

Very difficult to come up with a simple solution but if we were to, somehow, change governments reliance on GDP growth as an indicator of success, replace it with aneasy to determine indicator that measured wellbeing, we would overcome a lot of the damaging actions that are taken to expand GDP. As a suggestion; instead of GDP a countries per capita expenditure on health care+ education+ research(non military) + arts

Saving The Planet

From: Ed Patton, Nov 28, 2009 10:25 PM

Worldwide,voluntary,free, sterilization with substantial cash incentives after one or two children must happen!

Keep up the great and necessary discussion

From: Chris Bystroff, Nov 28, 2009 08:45 PM

Although I think the situation is far simpler than people make it out to be. All life forms grow exponentially if they are not checked by predation. Food supply is finite. Eventually the population outstrips the food supply and there is a crash. How it happens, how fast or slow, and the collateral damage that comes with it, are hard to predict. But for certain there will be a population crash. In the spirit of unabashed truthtelling, I would like to start the discussion of how to decrease the human population, in a humane manner, so that the crash will be less severe. As John Holdren once illustrated, if one is driving in a fog near a cliff with bad brakes, it makes sense to hit the brakes early. The car is humanity, and the speed is the human population. Hitting the brakes early is decreasing the population, so that when we hit the carrying capacity that is our cliff, we will fall more gently and perhaps not so much.

Heinberg's Essay

From: Albert A. Bartlett, Nov 28, 2009 01:42 PM

Richard Heinberg understands the problem. So what do we do to move toward solving the problem?

We must have the widest possible support for the universal availability of family planning facilities and equipment. The goal would be that "Every child is a wanted child." This would go a long way toward getting our population size on a downward trajectory toward a population size that could be sustained by the Earth's then remaining resources.

Best wishes.

AL Bartlett

Must get to causes

From: Peter Seidel, Nov 28, 2009 06:57 AM

Thank you for so clearly expressing what many of us feel, but are unable, or afraid, to put into words. I would like to express two thoughts:

Merely dealing with climate change on the highest level can only produce limited results, we have to get down to causes. Population x Consumption x Technology = Impact on all of our environmental problems. We are dealing with the last factor, technology, when we insulate our homes, switch to hybrid cars, and utilize solar energy and wind power. But we do not even talk about dealing with population or consumption. Population is taboo. As soon as one brings up the word it raises red flags. We have to detach the word from the connotations that the religious right and some others have given it so that we can talk about it objectively as fact before ideas like forced abortions are raised. And, what politician or popular journalist will suggest living more simply? Is this so bad? Haven't Jesus, Buddha, and many wise good people suggested this?

And we have to see ourselves for what we are, then we can deal with that. We have built this amazing technological civilization, but we have not handled well. We have done this by focusing our attention on ever smaller and smaller pieces of reality while ignoring the whole. Now we have to look at the whole and see it as a interacting parts connected and dependent on each other. And, we have to recognize our personal limitations. By doing so, we can overcome them.

Steps to Sustainability: Overarching Issues

From: Mike Hanauer, Nov 28, 2009 05:37 AM

A dialogue toward action for groups and individuals

Most now agree: We are losing the climate change and environmental battle.

We have a planetary cancer which continues to get more aggressive, yet our “ready, fire, aim” tact amounts to treatment with a box of band-aids and no plan or hope to get where we need to be. A road that goes one-third the distance cannot continue to make us feel good while denying the extent of the needed journey. We are targeting mostly easy and politically correct symptoms – usually avoiding and therefore even masking the most effective actions.

We must, all together and at all levels – local, state, national and beyond, tackle the big and overarching causes rather than continue to give the impression that just the little things will be enough. Within this framework, I have come to believe the following NEEDS TO BE DONE to make future generations smile back at us (those marked (*), are especially good for local groups as programs and action items):

1. Remember the goal we called sustainability? We must restore this tenet of sustainability as a goal - which also leads to all of the following--

2. We must again embrace “Think globally, act locally”. There is no global government, so there are unlikely to be any fast "global" solutions. Only many coordinated and effective actions will create a sum greater than the whole. We must do the right thing while we ask others at all levels to do the same.

3. * We need to get behind real restoration of democracy (campaign finance reform, limitation of corporate power and lobbying, media control, etc.). It is not just the (lonely) job of Ralph Nader. All together, we have the power. Without us, Nader and our children lose. So many of our problems now can be traced to our leaving this issue only to others. [Overarching Issue]

4. Legislation stopping the release of greenhouse gasses and promoting efficient alternative technology needs to happen quickly and be tough. Cap and trade is a political solution that won't meet the need. Did we tell one company they could continue pouring effluent into the river if another downstream said it would cut? In the Obama post pure markets age, solutions like cap and trade should be quickly exposed for what they are - less than what is needed, at best. We need timely and effective legislation especially at the national level.

5. * We need to scream, in unison, about the evils of growth including our own population growth which drives so much of it. Growth overwhelms even good technology and conservation. The US has surpassed 300 million people and we will surpass a half billion in about 40 years. Many agree with me here, but question being able to talk about US population. Most people who care about climate change have no problem talking about population. Growth is a religion that must be debunked. Silence is not productive. Our efforts to control greenhouse gases are failing largely because growth overwhelms all the other actions. [Overarching Issue]

6. Immigration is causing most of our population growth: We should cut it to help stabilize our own population, reduce our own greenhouse gases, set an example for others, and stop being an overflow and talent drain for other overpopulated countries that also should limit growth. This will help the US and the world as opposed to the present situation which promotes world growth and resulting damage. And yes, we must help other countries do that.

7. We need to be skeptical of new technology and its being our salvation; the private sector is usually a biased judge – especially when there is a product to profit on. So many are later found to do more harm than good. All technology has undesirable side effects and in an overpopulated country, side effects are always in somebody’s back yard. Wind and solar fall into this classification, so the promises must be evaluated from a holistic viewpoint by independent sources.

8. * We need to promote how much more efficient a building is that is NEVER built (over one that is built but is more efficient than most that already exist). Halting growth will allow that - and generally allow resources to go to supporting a better quality of life rather than supporting "bigger over better".

9. * We need to get people to act to make this all happen. We need to include "limit your family size" and “pester your representative” on our lists (along with use CFLs, turn down the heat and use a clothes line).The overarching issues are most important. If the little things mask the big things, I believe we fail. I believe that that failure is now evident.

10. * We need to look at our mission statements. If the mission can rule out any of this stuff, our mission is more self-serving than serving of our children.

I have come to believe that we need to admit that our climate change requires major adjustment to support sustainability. We must promote, all together in all groups at all levels, what is needed to make a difference to our children and to history as it looks back. This means loudly educating about the impact of overarching issues. It means all groups talking to state and US representatives to kill the growth mantra and restore democracy in an orchestrated and united manner. In my opinion, this type of a change in direction has a chance of making a difference. History indicates that our present course is rearranging the deck chairs, and musical chairs at that.

I know all won't agree with everything, and this list is surely not complete, but we all need to start talking about overarching issues and a detail plan that addresses the need and then aim and fire. NGOs and their field groups must take the lead. Political correctness, only feel good actions, and a lack of strategic thinking need to stop – and be replaced by a plan that meets the needs which is pushed and implemented by strong legislation, locally yet pervasive. This does not mean eliminating the good programs we have – it means adding a few more that will have a huge positive result.

So many clearly now believe our present trajectory needs major adjustment. Silence is not golden.

Right On!

From: Aaron Wissner, Oct 26, 2009 09:15 PM

Hi Richard,

Great article. I was nodding my head in utter agreement with you. My own journal entries are very much in tune with what you were saying, so it is very comforting to hear another person share the same sentiment about our mission to save Earth.

Your question about the non-concensus amongst the Earth-savers brings up a conference/summit/congress idea that I've been tossing around.

I'm thinking that a very huge gathering of the Earth-savers together to learn about all of the pressing issues, and their interrelationships, and how to work together to solve it. I'm thinking a 2-3 day intro conference, followed by 4-5 days of congress, honest dialogue and/or deliberation in a congress, training on solutions, etc. The sooner, the better.

Here are some specifics:

Part III - Solutions Congress

It is time to bring together all those who are interested in saving Earth, in order to:

* understand important news about the current global situation;

* understand the underlying mechanisms perpetuating this destruction;

* consider various future scenarios including their risks and likilihoods;

* collectively consider, explore and evaluate the vision of a saved Earth;

* determine areas of common agreement on vision;

* collectively consider, explore and evaluate possible solution paths;

* determine areas of common agreement on solutions;

* develop plans for collective action;

This is a draft, so it could definitely be improved, but I think it closely agrees with the issue you bring up of a current lack of consensus.

So, thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your fine thoughts. I'm glad I had a few free moments to peruse Energy Bulletin today.


Aaron Wissner


Local Future

Humans are a cancer on the earth

From: Anonymous, Jun 5, 2009 05:15 AM

Actually the radical green philosophy is that humans are a cancer on the earth and you would like to see us all eradicated.

The myth of peak oil is known and we still have much more oil we have not taken from our earth right here in the USA and offshore.

This current crisis has been manipulated by the foreign banking cartel and the Federal Reserve in order to create chaos and force us into global socialism.

We ain't buyin' it.

-- Teacher with common sense

root causes

From: Mary Wildfire, Jun 4, 2009 09:06 AM

First, I think population is key but we really don't know that the Earth can support only 6 million people--I think it's probably much more than that, although likely much less than the current 6.5 billion. Many argue that it's all an evil eurocentric plot to discuss population, since the rate of global increase has dropped markedly and the excessive use of resources per capita by the developed world is the real problem. Seems clear to me that both are right--we must stop population growth and begin a global decline, AND we must reduce consumption by the richest billion. This is perfectly achievable technically--we just need a global one-child-per-woman limit, no exceptions. Realistically in practice, it won't happen any more than a real climate change protocol capable of solving the problem will emerge from Copenhagen.

I disagree that the problem is that humans aren't smart enough. The problem is that humans vary greatly in intelligence, and one human with the capacity to design a nuclear bomb can enable their creation despite millions not having such capacity--and more to the point, intelligence and knowledge and wisdom are three different things. It takes remarkable intelligence and knowledge to design a nuclear weapon and equally incredible lack of wisdom to build it. There now tens of thousands of these devices on this Earth because the nature of our society, NOT necessarily of humanity on some genetic level, dictates that WISDOM AND POWER REPEL EACH OTHER. The least wise among us have the most power. Knowledge is simply information, and intelligence is the capacity to collect and understand and retain information. Wisdom is the ability to see, and the inclination to seek, the longest range view of what is best--what is best for not just me or my family or even my tribe or nation, but all people and all living things; not just what works best for us here now but what is best for all who come after us. Thus the opposite of wisdom is not stupidity but selfishness. Officially our political system is democracy--in reality it is corporatocracy, not "rule by the people" who in reality have almost no say in policy but instead we have rule by corporations which are the machinery of pursuit of wealth by the already wealthy. Our current system dictates that 1--policy is set by the President and Members of Congress and 2--their policy choices are whatever their campaign contributors dictate and lobbyists spell out and 3--the objective of these people is to protect profits, each concerned with the bottom line of mone or more corporations and none having any interest in the common good. There is a great pretense that ordinary people can affect policy by lobbying activities, but to approach Congress (or a state body) with policy desires and without having contributed many thousands of dollars to the campaign fund is like showing up at a whorehouse broke, thinking you're going to get service.

In other words, the problem isn't really primarily the resistance of ordinary people to hearing that our way of life must change, problematic as that is. The real problem is that sufficient change fast enough requires national and international policy change, not just personal lifestyle changes. And the machinery of our governmental systems is responsive only to the pressure of money, money which is invested in Congress to generate much more money. Individual lobbyists or Members of Congress may see these problems, but will not be able to change anything merely because the survival of humanity is at stake.

club of World Savers - forum please

From: Ray Taylor, Jun 4, 2009 01:34 AM

How about we have a mutual support group for professional world savers?

Anyone willing to set up a forum for us?


What advice do you have for a mother?

From: Anonymous, Jun 1, 2009 06:58 AM

I hope you get the chance to read this and if you do, thank you very much for taking the time. I have a question:

in terms of one of my roles, which is as a mother, in a country which is not organized yet at all and with very little of this kind of awareness;

and taking into account that I am not an organizer or a salesman in the way you describe yourself;

(I do have a role to play helping raise awareness and community action but that is not what I am asking about here);

so purely as a mother (and the forward thinker in the family) wanting to do the best for her family, what would you do in my position to prepare for the future?

I read voraciously but get bounced between arguments for growing vegetables and arguments saying food supply will be disrupted relatively late in the collapse and that office jobs, cement, and other stuff is higher in energy use and therefore will go first;

... between planning ahead in terms of chickens and vegetables and realizing that I need to be focused and maybe should rather work hard at the (temporary)status quo to get the funds to buy a farm somewhere;

... so in the end I make a stab at a few things but am probably just wasting my energy, something none of us can afford to do anymore!

So, as a mother, with two children I have to do my best for, combined with my forward thinking and planning role - what would be the most efficient and productive use of my time?

I am feeling quite disorientated, not surprising given the magnitude of the issue, but I think it's a singlemindedness in terms of what one does on an individual level, starting with how one cares for and plans for one's children and their future, that I am needing now.

I know the answers are probably not all there yet, things are changing so fast, but I also hope that people who know a lot more than I do about this field could have some helpful insights.

I hope this is the right forum for this question, and thank you for your time and your writing.


God parks bikes for the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

From: Tian Harter, May 30, 2009 09:41 PM

One thing that's working to get us moving forward together is the little framing things people do for fun. I was reminded of this when I noticed that the name tag on the guy supervising the bike parking for the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Bike to Work Day Party had "God" on his name tag. In case you were wondering, God did a good job of keeping my bike safe.

Until she termed out as Speaker Pro Tem of the Assembly, I was represented in Sacramento by Sally Lieber. Going to her fundraisers, she was very clear that her name meant "we". After I heard that I stopped trying to sort the people that wanted money for homeless services from the ones that wanted money for the arts. Instead I got this "we are moving forward together" feeling. I guess that's the value a good politician provides.

I've found that the oil issue is best dealt with as a subtext for everyday life. For example, I like to tell people "we need to stop voting for oil companies at the gas pump." It has to be a one dollar one vote kind of thing. Our oil consumption patterns are too deep in our habits to deal with it any other way. When my vegetarian friends tell me "the biggest thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is cut your red meat consumption" I usually reply "I eat less meat than I used to."

As for the carbon trading idea, I think it is only going to work when I can trade carbon offsets from my low impact lifestyle to fuelish commuters on an eBay like exchange. As in "today I only used four twisty bulbs for six hours each, and I never got in a car. That gives me a ton of carbon dioxide offsets (or whatever the right number is) to sell." A low carbon lifestyle that can be mined like that would be externally rewarding as well as internally rewarding.

I also wanted to join others in this list thanking Heinberg for the many good articles and books he has written that I have read. I'm a better activist because of that work.

The Root Cause?!!

From: Steve Beck, May 15, 2009 01:19 PM

Thank you Richard for another inspired and inspiring article that, as always, goes straight to the heart of the matter!

I have also greatly enjoyed the diversity of comments posted by readers, many of whom seem to raise, directly or indirectly, the issue of root cause. There are of course a great number of proximate causes of the myriad problems that constitute our global crisis. But what if they are all consequences, in some way, of a more deeply underlying cause? If so, then getting to the root of it all may be essential--so that our efforts to save the world are not undermined, in the end, by the root cause itself!

It seems to me that there may be two broad root cause catagories or options, each with a variety of possible candidates, including potential combinations of both options. But, for the sake of brevity, I will suggest the possibilities that seem most likely to me:

OPTION 1: Ecosystems, human nature, and/or existence itself, simply do not contain the potential for survival and success for all. Perhaps we are just too selfish, greedy, or ignorant by nature. Or perhaps as Thomas Malthus proposed, we will always tend to overshoot our ability (or our ecosystems ability) to produce food (and the other necessities). Or perhaps it is the very nature of existence itself to limit survival. In any case, whatever the specifics might be, we will always find ourselves in a competitive struggle against other people and nature itself because there just isn't enough of what we need to go around.

OPTION 2: Ecosystems, human nature, and existence itself do contain the potential for a successful and sustainable way and means of dwelling on the planet (within ecosystem carrying capacity)--but we have somehow misunderstood the nature of genuine success and the principles and requirements for achieving it.

If Option 1 is correct, then our efforts to save the world are doomed, because global crisis is the result of human nature, ecosystem function, and/or the very nature of existence.

My conviction however is that Option 2 is the correct answer. A genuinely successful and sustainable dwelling process for all is possible (again, within population limits determined by carrying capacity). And that our escalating global crisis is a consequence of the collectively inherited misunderstanding that survival requires a competitive struggle against other people and nature itself to win success--a misunderstanding that has been circulating for at least 5,000 years, since the advent of conquest and empire.

I think that this misunderstanding is tenacious because when we act on it we not only create failure for some, but life does become a competitive struggle for survival. The failure that this misunderstanding creates seems to prove it true! Rather than learning from failure, as we do with many forms of misunderstanding, this cycle leads us to seek solutions by acting ever more desperately to do what causes failure in the first place!

Once established, this misunderstanding and its causal dynamic make it difficult to recognize that ecosystems and existence itself actually achieve success by inherently evolving and functioning to accomplish an optimum with a minimum, without waste, through synergetic cooperation at every level.

To achieve genuine success a dwelling and economic process must likewise accomplish an equitable optimum with a sustainable minimum, to ensure the necessities of life for all, before consuming resources in the production of luxuries and waste.

In sharp contrast, our current economy and its industrial technologies have been designed for the primary purpose of producing wealth rather than what we actually need. In consequence, they inherently function to maximize profit for the few through the domination, exploitation, and wasteful consumption of resources--while creating poverty, debt, and wage-enslavement for many. Unaffordable housing and our financial and monetary systems alone require constant growth. Resource depletion, global climate change, habitat loss, species extinction, and ever more violent conflict are the result. In the end, the collapse of the economic, monetary, and industrial agriculture systems that we now depend upon for survival is inevitable.

Fortunately, it's all the result of just a little misunderstanding! The potential for genuine success is inherent in the way that existence works. Manifesting it only requires that we choose it--through accurate understanding, synergetic design, and cooperative action. Since we as a species have created the problem, it is our responsiblility to get it right!

Thanks again Richard, and Post Carbon Institute--for the work you are doing to address the most important issues of our time--and for inspiring us all to be world-savers!

Steve Beck


Universally Affordable Lifesupport Self-Reliance

For Surviving Collapse and Transforming Crisis

Earth-Savers Unite

From: Bloomer, May 10, 2009 08:20 PM

You can't expect people to know what they don't know. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. While we may live with a clearer conscience without the Heinbergs' of the world, we would be missing out on the opportunity to live in the here and now. Mindfulness and awareness of the present state, influences ours thoughts and eventually our actions. Pass it on.

Idealism's downfall

From: Vicky Komie, May 10, 2009 02:12 PM


Thanks for the effort that you make for the sake of humanity. However, I posit that your assumption that humanity only needs to understand the 'problem' facing it and it will do the right thing to make the downside better than our worst fears, is flawed.

Humans, just like all the other animals, are made to respond to the immediate environment to the exclusion of long-term planning. Humans are the animal that can postulate the future, but cannot actually predict the future with any reliability. Proof of this is the very predicament we find ourselves in. One unintended consequence after another.

Idealism is profoundly flawed because it is, at its core, a rejection of life as it actually is. In one way or another idealism always assumes that life processes can be improved on. Yes, we can have 'improved' technologies or find ways to conserve energy. I consider these things trivial matters compared to the drive to best nature.

What worries me most about all the rational ideas for improving the slide down the energy well is the true waste of energy inherent in these schemes. As the contraction occurs, every new scheme and development that might be appropriate at that moment will become inappropriate far too soon. Talk about stranded assets.

The masses that can't hear the cries of their saviors are probably better off. Turn 180 degrees and assume that the masses are the humans. Not those of us on the far right hand side of curve. We've already been too clever by half. Us outliers need to start cultivating our own gardens and get with natures program, instead of our own high-brow solutions for the masses.

I use to be an idealist. And I'm still too clever by half.

The Elephant in the Congress

From: Suzanne Duarte, May 10, 2009 06:00 AM

This is in response to Aaron Wissner, but first I want to say how much I appreciate each and every one of Richard Heinberg's articles and posts. What I got most from 'Somebody's Gotta Do It' is that the 'It' is to tell the truth that the majority does not want to hear or acknowledge. As a few others commenting on this article have said, the most unpopular truth is overpopulation - or the overshoot of Earth's carrying capacity by the human population. The inability to face this truth is the reason there is so little consensus about what to do. Nobody wants to present a plan for reducing the human population in the time we have left - that is, before all the converging crises converge in food and water shortages, resource wars, famine and chaos, etc. I don't have any humane solutions to overpopulation, either. I'm afraid we - the majority of humans - have already left it by default to Nature to sort out, because of our inability to exercise foresight 40 - 50 years ago, when warnings were issued on peak oil and the limits to growth. (Richard explains this issue nicely in his recent 'Timing' article.)

Therefore, Aaron, what's the use of calling a huge congress, entailing the cost and pollution of travel, if you can't get agreement from the beginning on the centrality of human overpopulation to all of our most pressing global problems? I'll bet you anything that you won't get more than a handful of people if you ask for that agreement. As Sir David Attenborough recently put it so nicely, "I've never seen a problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more." Attenborough, the dean of the BBC's spectacular programs on the state of the Earth, has openly and courageously declared that overpopulation is THE obstacle to solutions to the ecological crisis. 'World-savers' who are not ecocentric, as Attenborough is - that is, who are anthropocentric and concerned only with 'human problems' in isolation from ecological problems - won't touch overpopulation with a 10-foot pole. That's the blind spot, the elephant in the room, or in the Congress that you are dreaming of.

I don't mean to pick on Aaron. The honorable Lester Brown also proposes solutions that do not include addressing population. Just about everybody concerned with 'saving civilization' does it, with a few notable exceptions. This blind spot is going to lead to the majority of humans running over the cliff like lemmings, I'm afraid. The worst part about it, from my point of view, is that the human lemmings will take most of the other species with them. That is the greatest tragedy for any humans who survive, not to mention for the integrity of the biosphere - Gaia. I wish it were not so, and that I could see a way around this likelihood.

Nevertheless, like Richard Heinberg, I remain a card-carrying member of the Cassandra Club - the world-savers who can stand to look reality in the face and still keep working to take the blinders off our fellow human earthlings. Somebody's gotta do it. Therefore, I propose reframing world-saving efforts as either saving the human species by saving the biosphere, or trying to save civilization, which will save neither. That's a stark way to put it, I realize, but the truth is, humanity will not be saved or served by trying to save civilization as we've known it, including trying to save all existing humans. I'm sorry, but I think it is a waste of time and resources to think it is possible to save civilization and all existing humans. It's too late.

That doesn't mean nothing can be done on a local level, so that is where I believe world-savers should concentrate their efforts. Pockets of sane, mature human beings working at the bioregional level to limit human reproduction and preserve habitat for nonhuman species are our best hope for human-ecosystem survival through the collapse of civilization. It isn't sexy and grandiose, but it is an ecocentric solution to a civilization that is already in the process of positive disintegration. Let this old dinosaur of a system die, so that many new and smaller ones can be born.

Carbon dioxide

From: Claire, May 9, 2009 07:52 AM

Are you aware that when you are in an airplane you are in the tropopause? You can look down on the part of the atmosphere that contains most all wind and weather.

We can see up to where the planes fly when we look up in the sky. It's not that far away.

That's the portion of atmosphere-from where we stand on the ground up to that jet in the sky- where CO2 is building up.

Mining and drilling and burning took it out of its bound-up state in solid coal and oil, and released it to the air. Because of its molecular structure: O-C-O (an in-line molecule), each CO2 molecule resonates (it flexes).It gives off, in all directions, some of the photon energy that bombard it. Some energy is scattered upward and some downward. The photon energy is slowed down by hitting the CO2 molecules and can't bounce back out of the lower atmosphere where we live.

That's why carbon dioxide is the main global warming gas.

Saving the world?

From: Voyager, May 9, 2009 06:10 AM

There's nothing quite like the combination of ignorance and arrogance, and you and some of the commentators clearly have it in spades! :-(

You may well be very sincere but I don't think you really know too much about the world. Your comments seem to be based on your knowledge of the USA - well, just in case you hadn't noticed there's a much bigger world outside of which you lack proper comprehension. Human society and resources vary enormously from country to country - we're not all like Americans and the USA.

As for saving the world! What arrogance! We know very little about how it works anyway. And the planet will be around and working quite happily millennia after you've been forgotten.

And if humankind and many other species have disappeared by then, so what? It's quite normal for new species to come into existence and older ones to disappear; things probably change every day. That's been happening for a long, long time. And if you're trying to *preserve* something, then you're going in the wrong direction.

I find your belief that human society may descend into chaos to be quite absurd. Certainly, there may be pockets of chaos. But I have never read anywhere any logical well-thought out explanation of why that should happen on a widespread basis. Mostly all I see are hysterical, illogical tracts borne out of ethnocentric myopia.

You should read'll-be-just-fine,-says-planet-20080306774/

Whilst there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek about it, it does 'tell it like it is'.

Certainly work with your local communities to improve their lifestyles and minimise things like habitat destruction, but please stop presenting yourself as another saviour of humankind. The first one was a total failure, and you will be too.

Hansen now supports nuclear power

From: Anonymous, May 6, 2009 11:17 PM

James Hansen now supports the Integral Fast Reactor as the solution to climate change. He wrote about it in "Tell Obama The Truth: The Whole Truth." Fast reactors are 100 to 300 times as fuel efficient, and can economically use uranium extracted from seawater. "Prescription for the Planet," by Tom Blees, finally convinced him.

It's not ours to save, actually.

From: Dan Conine, May 6, 2009 06:09 PM

What I mean is that when someone tells you that we need to spend tons of money to save 'our world', well, that's because they will make tons of money (usually) doing the 'saving' in a short period of time, but as you said, there is no consensus on what the 'world' is, what people are for, and how to go about establishing these facts, let alone the temporal displacement decision (whether it is our world or our grandchildren's world: once we have raised our children to adulthood, it is no longer our place to decide).

I do have one concept which I find stabilizing: Net Usefulness. This is the concept that all things, living and not, remain in existence if they provide some usefulness in the future universe over and above the amount of resources it takes to keep them in existence. This applies to everything from subatomic particles to human beings to the fusion in stars. From a living species' standpoint, that means that every action we take has a consequence, whether we make any choices about it or not(we usually don't make as many choices as we think we are: we simply respond to stimuli and make up excuses later).

Your work is probably more net useful than most, but in toto, how much energy does our species consume in order to tell itself how important it is?

In the Net Useful way of doing things, it is much easier to conserve than to create if the goal is the positive net useful result. For every 'green' windmill we put up, there is a long chain of resources still in play, while for every erg we cut back, we stop a long future chain of consumption.

I've been trying to save the world for much too long, and I'm just going to enjoy the zombie-killing show now. People have been too insane with comfort and greed to listen, so screw 'em.

Good luck with your efforts. You've got a long way to go to catch up to the Cheney's and Bilderbergers and Wall Street bonus-funded consumption fests.

The funny part is, we never needed them at all, or their oil. But that's a different world which we aren't supposed to explore, now are we...?

I love your work, by the way. Especially "End of Suburbia."

Rewarding high energy users

From: annonymous, May 6, 2009 07:32 AM

I wish there could be a concerted effort to convince all energy suppliers to turn the tables on energy costs. For example, my provider recently sent out a notice about residential rate increases. Those who use the least electricity will be getting the highest increase (16.36%). Those who use the most, will get the lowest increase (15.35%). It would seem they could justify reversing this rate structure with all the attention energy use has garnered. Now would be the time for the utility companies to reward the lowest users with decreased rates and encourage the heavy users to scale back by jacking up the rates even more.


Selling hope to Joe Public

From: Doug, May 6, 2009 07:21 AM


Your message definitely leans toward the "tell the truth regardless," and "only the facts, mam!" end of the continuum. That's probably one reason your "world-saving" work is so deeply appreciated and respected... by a few of us, anyhow! ;^)

If the "limits to growth / limits to cheap energy" message is ever to be heard and embraced by Joe Public, we'll have to figure out some folksy ways to package and deliver that message that will give Joe Public some real HOPE and a future to look forward to. (President Obama figured this one out!)

Or else... you'll likely be brushed off by Joe Public as just another Chicken Little peddling doom and gloom (so U can sell more books!)

(When I write "you," I'm addressing whoever is reading this.)

Maybe you think there is no real hope for the future -- in which case, why bother trying so hard?! May as well kick your feet up and party-hardy!

If you really believe that there are things to be hopeful about in regards to the future, try emphasizing those things so that Joe Public will get inspired too. For example, how about expending more effort emphasizing the virtues and health benefits of local community, making more of what we use locally, and organically homegrown food?

As a side note, it will probably be easier to sell hope to Joe Public if you are a "believer" rather than a "non-believer" -- or at least pretend to believe! :)

If you're not interested in "selling hope" then don't expect your message to ever go mainstream.

As for "population control"... well, aside from educating folks about birth control, and keeping a woman's right to choose legal, talking about "population control" is not going to give anyone any real hope -- it will only confirm their worst suspicions of you. (And after all, how do you know that you won't be the first person that the population control enforcer comes after!)

God bless you, (or should I say, Darwin bless you?) Whichever works for you! :)


I am a presenter also

From: Stephen Hinkle, May 6, 2009 02:12 AM

I do a lot of work in advocacy in terms of people with disabilities and trying to make the system a better place for them. I am a famous presenter on the conference circuit as well. In fact, on my slideshow about transitioning to adulthood, where I cover college, independent living, and workforce issues, I have even mentioned "Peak Oil" and what the youth will be facing in the upcoming years and what that will mean for some of the changes from suburbia to new urbanism and how we will likely relocalize.

I commend you for what you are doing and I think that you are doing the right thing in trying to make our planet a better place to live for all.

As for feeling guilty when you travel on airplanes, I think that there will likely be better ways for people to travel in the future. I think that railways and some high speed railways will be around for people to get around as well as boats in the 21st century. After all, we had long distance travel both domestic and international that did not rely on fossil fuels. English East India Company centuries ago was one of the first global economic systems and they shipped goods throughout europe, the middle east, and later to the americas all using human powered boats. The Oregon Trail was a movement from Missouri to Oregon using Oxen Powered Wagon Trains. Even Air Travel might not become totally extinct as there is increasing evidence that renewable fuels do work in commercial airliners. Algae, Jatropha, Camelina, Babasu, are just some of the feedstocks for fuel that have peformed well in commercial airplanes.


From: Karim, May 5, 2009 03:16 PM

Well I always wanted to express my greatest gratitude to "the world savers" and especially to YOU Mr. Heinberg. (and here is why, long long explanation follows ;-) )

If I may introduce myself:

I'm a now 22 year old student from switzerland and since I was a small child I always thought that this world is quite crazy in regards to it's financial system(s), energy usage and environmental destruction.

I think that kind of critical thinking about the way things are done came for most parts because of my years with the scouts, since it was my source of greatest interaction with nature and some of the above mentioned topics because you not only rely on the nature for entertainment but you see it as the source of your doings plus the kind of rudimentary, simplistic settings get you thinking about a lot of necessities and services which we take for granted (food, water, cooking, sleeping in tents, social/group dynamics).

I always noticed that people kept ignoring my suspicions that this way of live is unsustainable but not until I came in contact with peak oil through you and others, like colin campbell, daniele ganser, matthew simmons could I really coin any term or put my finger on the problem which sets the most undeniable limits to the system (because it's the most profound vulnerability of our "science can save everything"-dogma) and thus make it waver/fail.

On a side note, English is a great language because the word unsustainable already implies that our way of unsustainable way of life "cannot be sustained" and must end (in the german language there's no such clear equivalent).

I personally prefer your views of a whole systems thinking in comparison to those who try to deal with only one issue and the by not telling the whole truth of the problems severeness in order to appeal because it's one of the reasons why we walked into this whole mess.

As soon as one understands the potential (and realistically speaking the inevitable) cliff we are heading to, there's this surreal detached feeling (I think you mentioned schizophrenic in your previous post) from the flow of our modern society.

Of course it's quite hard, I'm nearly the only one I know from my surroundings and what's most scary from my age-group that gives serious credits to the works like yours, it can be really though to confront oneself with the facts and for you especially since you can't just look away or take a break since it's your profession.

What always scares me to no end is that no one takes this issue seriously (especially in "well-off" switzerland) and so there's no incentive to move to a more sustainable way of life so again one is trapped in this web of society that makes it nearly impossible to do anything, it's an upstream battle.

My advantage of being from the young generation is the same thing that blocks my path since I just barely manage through my studies but nevertheless I would like to again emphasize how grateful I am for the work you (and others) have done.

The university complex has, as I would like to mention also become a kind of economic circus because the money on which those universities work and the students which at the end get employed by a company and so become part of the financial system, so the interest of companies and the industry get integrated into the whole curriculum.

I learned that when I started with biology at one of the two universities in Zürich (the ETH) where at first we got pamphlets and books from the likes of "Roche" where they advertised stuff like genetic engineering to save this and that and of course a week of study was composed of about 8-10 hours biology, 18-20 hours of chemistry and some maths, with implications that studies would focus on chemistry (and industry applications) since all of life is chemistry.

Disappointed I soon changed to physics which is of course very interesting but heavily depends on high-end technology and the current (eoconomical/social) system to even run, because basic (and broadly appliable) physics can be thought in one year and the more advanced stuff not only creates the incentive but then ALSO depends on high-tech use /abundant energy. (Plus I always wonder how they will continue with feeding so many people with that huge amount of food needed in our university)

So it again feels like a dead end when one thinks that life will be simpler in the future and we will have to concentrate on serving basic needs (quantum mechanics sure isn't one of them) in order to try to live a frugal life. So after seeing stuff about permaculture ("Farm for the future"-documentary) I'm thinking to switch to biology at our "university of zürich" (not too much chemistry, more emphasis on existing systems/ plants then engineering them etc.).

So to finish this "long" and hopefully not too boring essay of mine one last issues:

I before mentioned the scouts as my link to nature and have come to think that if one somehow manages to incorporate this issues of our times with their program one could surely have a great impact for the following reasons:

-As a scout one is obliged to respect the link between nature and us (wheres the separation?) and caring for it is already embedded in the very nature of being a scout.

-A vast age group but especially young folks, so lots of initiative and a seed for the future plus it's seen as the worlds greatest international organized youth movement

covering both genders

-It's a nonprofit organisation so it lives only through the efforts of the people and their personal experience alone, so no need for big money (as detached from the economic system as possible, reminds you of transition towns)

-As an open minded, kind of democratic but very organized system/organ, I'm sure more people would listen to the subject since there's less reason for denial and it's in favour of the movements Idea. Since there's a global organisation, global attention could be gathered and action taken.

Again thank you and

my best wishes,


Interesting that Rob ("What

From: Nick, May 5, 2009 02:56 PM

Interesting that Rob ("What path forward?") mentions slavery in relation to Oil, because I came across an amazing fact in Shaun Chamberlin's book "The Transition Timeline" that the amount of oil consumed worldwide each day (75,000,000 barrels or so) converted into work and divided by the amount of work a human can do means that each and every one of the nearly 7,000,000,000 humans on the planet effectively has 35 personal slaves provided by the energy from oil.

And, yes - energy shortages, resource depletion and environmental degredation have been central to the collapse of many ancient civilisations (see e.g. Jared Diamond, Thomas Homer-Dixon) and it seems clear ours is heading the same way.

I am a "Tranny" like Tommy Tolson, and believe that working within one's local community to help prepare for the lean-energy future is the most positive action that a humble person can undertake. I've spent the last 6 months tearing through some wonderful books and enjoyed throwing my full energy at trying to adapt this knowledge to local solutions. The brown stuff is certainly flying fanwards, but I'm not going to tell that to my kids or anyone else's. Evolution? Well the next generation will certainly be smarter than ours...

improving the debate

From: Robert Smart, May 5, 2009 01:42 PM

Democracy is a process for making these big decisions. Unfortunately it is not a very good process for conducting the required investigation into the facts. We need vigorous open well-funded investigations into all the relevant facts. We need to get past the current situation where the two sides talk past each other and are never forced to respond to the other side's points.

I'd like to make one other point. If we go around saying X, Y and Z, and then it becomes increasingly apparent that Z is a mistake, then this is going to make people doubt our competence in relation to X and Y. The precautionary principle and ocean acidification are good enough reasons to stop burning coal asap. Claims beyond that lead to distracting arguments. We need to stick with what we really know and what is most immediately important, and that is depletion and peak oil and related food security issues.

Yes, and. . . .

From: Tommy Tolson, May 5, 2009 10:44 AM

Until the Transition Model came to Texas and proved that the design concepts of Permaculture extend to what Bill Mollison called "Invisible Structures" toward the end of the Designers Manual, "systems thinking" extended only to gardens and gardening, which is not systems thinking, in my mind. I got seriously bashed for two years by many local Permaculturists until exposure to Transition showed them that what I was talking about was possible.

I was also hammered for saying that, in 2030, Austin would have no need for giant roads to help people commute to jobs in town from tract homes in sprawl developments.

Now I'm introducing TX State University in San Marcos, TX to Peak Oil, climate change, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in my attempt at lifelong learning. TSU is a long way from New College.

I'm also administrator of the Transition Texas Ning site, and organizing Transition Austin and its Hub structure.

So those of us who hold visions of the new paradigm, the ecological paradigm, carry on with the real work of culture change.

Watching people change is the best show on Earth, easily worth the price of admission. It feeds my soul. I would not trade places with anyone.

Speaking the Unspeakable

From: Sean Taylor, May 5, 2009 10:22 AM

I have the greatest respect for Mr. Heinberg, but I suspect that his efforts, like those of so many “world-savers”, are doomed to failure. Attempts at saving the world generally seem to backfire, particularly since they are unable to strike at the root of the world’s problems, which is an excess of humanity. If you accept this premise, then perhaps you should consider joining the military-industrial complex and start designing super-weapons in the spirit of Haber, Ishii and Teller, because they may turn out to be the real world-savers as our global predicament goes from bad to apocalyptic. There are humane ways to reduce the population, but if our moral blindness prevents their implementation we seem destined for a global Easter Island scenario and uncontrolled die-off, which will be much less pleasant than an intentional culling. I think Mr. Heinberg realizes all this, but to speak such unspeakable thoughts would mark him as a madman and discredit his efforts entirely. That’s the real dilemma, and there may be no solution except to say that in a world going mad, the future belongs to the madmen.

Save yourself the trouble

From: Jerry McManus, May 5, 2009 10:17 AM

I will never forget one day, many years before I had ever heard of "peak-oil" or "ecological overshoot", I was contemplating the state of the world as I knew it and a simple fact suddenly occurred to me: "More and more people every year, and they are all competing for fewer and fewer resources. Hmmm..., well, no way is that going to have a happy ending." I thought about it for a moment, quickly came to the conclusion that there really wasn't anything anyone could do about that, and went about my business.

Now, after several years of having my thinking greatly informed by reading everything I can get my hands on about our ecological predicament, I find myself in the odd position of having come full-circle and reaching much the same conclusion as I did before. In fact, at the risk of alienating myself entirely, I would go even further and suggest that the idea of "saving the world" is a peculiar conceit that serves no real purpose.

To understand how I reached that conclusion I highly recommend the work of the late ecologist H. T. Odum, especially his book "A Prosperous Way Down". He had the brilliant insight (one of many) that all systems, both living and non-living, self-organize to maximize the amount and quality of energy and resources available to that system. Furthermore, the pattern of slow accumulation of resources over time followed by a frenzied burst of consumption can be seen in many different systems and at many different scales, not just on Earth but throughout the universe.

We are at the apex of a monumental burst of frenzied consumption of very high quality energy, in the form of fossil sunlight, that has accumulated over millions of years. Humans, being clever little monkeys, have been extraordinarily successful at self-organizing to maximize the exploitation of that resource. Now, as that resource inevitably becomes depleted, we will quite naturally re-organize ourselves to reflect that reality.

I'm not suggesting that process will be painless, or that it will be fair to future generations, nor am I suggesting that many other species won't also find themselves on the short end of that stick, but I am suggesting that it is NOT un-natural and that we should therefore relieve ourselves of the burden of trying to save ourselves from..., well, ourselves.

If the goal is to engage people in creative solutions then the quickest way to fail that task is to tell everyone that what they are doing is wrong. Witness the spectacular failure of the environmental movement to alter our trajectory by any appreciable measure in the 30 years since the book "The Limits to Growth" was first published.

Try presenting, or re-framing if you will, the situation as a design problem. Much as Buckminster Fuller tried to do with his so-called "Design Science Revolution". Give people the tools to easily understand the ecological and energetic basis for our planet, ask them to decide where they want the world to be in 100 years (you might be surprised to find out how much people have in common in that regard), and then challenge them to figure out for themselves how we get there from here.

Ah! Just lifts that weight of "saving" the world right off of your shoulders and really gets the ol' creative juices flowing, doesn't it?



what path forward?

From: Rob, May 5, 2009 09:37 AM

Sincere thanks from one of your admirers.

When I contemplate the challenge of getting us moving in a positive direction I always come back to my belief that nothing will change until the majority has a fact based understanding of the problem. So our primary focus should be on disseminating knowledge (as you are doing). But there are so many complex intertwined issues that it is overwhelming even for the enlightened. So what should we try to focus people on?

I think the focus should be energy. Energy is central to everything: population, civilization, wealth, climate change, habitat destruction, species extinction, etc. And my observation is that most people, including many experts, do not have an accurate understanding of energy's pivotal role, or the energy options available to us.

For example, last night I watch a documentary on peak oil and climate change called "Energy Crossroads". It was quite well done and featured many knowledgeable people. Yet the producers in making a point completely missed the real point. They used the abolishing of slavery as an example of how society can learn about a bad behavior and change in a positive direction. The fact is that prior to fossil energy, slave energy was the best method for leveraging wealth creation. Slavery went away because we discovered a better alternate source of energy, not because we suddenly became ethical. My point here is that even experts often miss the central role of energy in everything we do.

I think and hope that if people understood energy better it would result in a mindset change on the importance of not wasting a vital resource, and would lead to more intelligent discussions on how best to mitigate our future problems. One group of people that should be targeted first are the climate change activists. If they truly understood energy and the implications of the options available to us, the conversation would take a dramatic shift and might lead towards some convergence on a strategy for our society.

One of the best starting points for data in a campaign to improve energy understanding is David MacKay's new book "Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air".

Salvage, not saving

From: George Mobus, May 5, 2009 08:20 AM


I've developed a different attitude. In a sense I suspect there can be no saving a species that has not yet evolved an elevated capacity for wisdom. Nor am I convinced that the environment can be saved in the sense that it will remain the same as it had been for us and our predecessors. The world changes for many reasons, mass extinctions occur for many reasons.

But evolution abides.

In my blogging efforts I spend no small amount of time writing about what 'should' be done to 'save' the world, knowing full well that what should be done can't be done (for all the reasons you just gave). But the point isn't so much to quixotically attempt to convince whoever reads my stuff that they need to think and act differently. It is more an exercise in thinking things through and preparing.

The world (as we know it) will come to an end. I think that is a law of nature! But something of human consciousness could yet survive and something like civilization yet be salvaged if we are prepared. Studying and understanding the problems, I think, help in that preparation. But I also think that most of the real problem is within us. We, as a species, have simply not evolved the brain capacity to be sufficiently sapient -- wise -- and make good judgments about our complex, technologically driven, and highly dynamic world.

The seeds of sapience are in us. It simply remains that evolution proceed, that selection for greater sapience operate on our stock. I am hopeful that the coming changes to our world will provide such a selective environment and that we have enough intelligence to provide the seed stock to provide a good start.

Even with humanity's best intentions, evolution is always the answer.

Question Everything

Saving the world

From: Steve From Virginia, May 5, 2009 07:48 AM

A large problem is few regard the whole, most regard just what is in front of them. A way to synthesize the whole is by profits - which works quite well. The profits of a firm that does business in thirty different countries can be measured to the penny.

Unless someone can get rich by conserving, nobody will conserve.

The Obvious

From: Dean Robertson, May 5, 2009 06:00 AM


The Obvious, never is, but asking a question sets the limits of a well thought out response.

Here is the question:

Given the Fossil Fuels we use today, have allowed us to build communities dependent on them, ... Can we keep any of them, ... our homes, our cars, our businesses, and any related occupations, ... much less the financial system that girds it ?

And, ...

Have you thought yet what building the new future entails ?

I have thought about the details since 1986, when I became a Peak-ist, about Energy.

truth sayer

From: Dave Fabick, May 5, 2009 05:57 AM

I hope you keep the discussion of the "cliff" in your message for people like me who respect but tire of reading brillent people with so many solutions that can't possibly scale. In a way, Mr Heinberg, (I rarely use Mr) you're unique in history. Humans have never been in the position of the last decade of having solid facts of the mortal biosphere damage being caused. The damage is now critical and not theoretical. You are there and closer to the truth. You are an essential voice of a new era.

prosperity without growth

From: edde, May 5, 2009 05:52 AM


I just downloaded a paper by a British commission called "Prosperity Without Growth" which takes into consideration many environment vs economy issues. I haven't read the whole thing (136 pages) but conclude that it calls for both a new economic paradigm and a new cultural sensibility (stuff isn't the be all and end all of life...)

Good post. THANKS for your fine work, Richard.


Reminds me of how after 9/11

From: Anonymous, May 5, 2009 03:55 AM

Reminds me of how after 9/11 an involuntary experiment was done where planes were grounded and skies actually cleared up. Your article suggests that we should expect to see later that the decline in economic activity resulted immediately in a decline in CO2, but what if it doesn't? What if the pent up forces of industrialization over the last 150 years has set into motion a runaway train that cannot be stopped? Positive feedback loops and all that. Will be interesting to see...