Home > Building Resilience > Announcing AFTERBURN: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels

Announcing AFTERBURN: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels

March 27, 2015

The advent of fossil fuels changed the world profoundly (giving us everything from plastics and automobiles to global warming); the inevitable and rapidly approaching end of the oil-coal-and-gas era will likewise bring overwhelming transformation in its wake. My new book Afterburn explores that transformation—its opportunities and challenges—in sixteen essays that address subjects as varied as energy politics, consumerism, localism, the importance of libraries, and oil price volatility.

Afterburn is a book of “greatest hits”—that is, popular essays that have been previously published—similar in that respect to an earlier book of mine, Peak Everything (2007). Like that previous collection, this one has been carefully selected and arranged, and features an all-new Introduction.

Here are just a few of the highlights:

“Ten Years After” reviews the debate about “peak oil” from the perspective of over a decade’s work in tracking petroleum forecasts, prices, and production numbers. As we’ll see, forecasts from oil supply pessimists have generally turned out to be accurate, far more so than those of official energy agencies or petroleum industry spokespeople.

Environmentalists tend to agree that consumerism is a deal-breaking barrier to the creation of a sustainable society. It’s helpful, therefore, to know exactly what consumerism is (not merely a greedy personal attitude but a system of economic organization) and how it originated (not as a natural outgrowth of “progress,” but as the deliberate creation of advertising and marketing firms). “The Brief, Tragic Reign of Consumerism” tells this story, and explores how we might go about building an alternative sufficiency economy.

Some long-time environmentalists have been anticipating global social and ecological catastrophe for many years, yet it has so far failed to manifest in all its devastating glory; what we see instead are periodic localized economic and environmental disasters from which at least partial recovery has so far been possible. “Fingers in the Dike” explains why industrial society has been able to ward off collapse for as long as it has, and suggests ways to best make use of borrowed time.

In 2011 a student organization at Worcester Polytechnic Institute invited me to give an alternative commencement address to the graduating class (the official commencement speaker was Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil). “Your Post-Petroleum Future” is the text of that address.

Environmental philosophers are currently debating the significance of our new geological epoch—which has been dubbed the Anthropocene, in acknowledgment of humanity’s dramatically expanding impact upon Earth’s natural systems. Some commentators take extreme positions, arguing the new epoch will usher in either human godhood or human extinction. “The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us” suggests instead that we are about to bump against the limits of human agency and thereby regain a sense of humility in the face of natural forces beyond our control.

“Conflict in the Era of Economic Decline” discusses the kinds of social conflict we are likely to see in the decades ahead as economies contract and weather extremes worsen—including conflict between rich and poor, conflict over dwindling resources, and conflict over access to places of refuge from natural disasters. This chapter also proposes a “post-carbon theory of change” that encourages building resilience into societal systems in order to minimize trauma from foreseeable economic and environmental stresses.

“Our Cooperative Darwinian Moment” points out that, while we inevitably face a critical bottleneck of overpopulation, resource depletion, and climate change, it’s up to us how we go through the bottleneck—whether in ruthless competition for the last scraps of food and natural resources, or in a burst of social innovation that brings more cooperation and sharing. Biology and history suggest the latter path is viable; it is certainly preferable. However, our chances of taking it successfully will improve to the degree that we devote much more effort now at developing cooperative institutions and attitudes.

Advocates for social change today face a nearly unprecedented opportunity, as I argue in “Want to Change the World? Read This First.” However, in order to make the most of it, they will need to understand historic and current revolutionary transformations in the relationship between society and ecosystem. As society’s energy systems inevitably change, this will bring the necessity for a reinvention of our economy, our political systems, and the explicit and implicit ideologies with which we explain and justify our world. With so much at stake, there has—quite literally—never been a more crucial moment to be aware and active in helping shape the process of societal change.

Welcome to life beyond fossil fuels.


7 Comments, RSS

  • At the end of the 1st paragraph of the introduction to Afterburn: subjects addressed as varied as
    “energy politics, consumerism, localism, the importance of libraries, and oil price volatility.”

    But no climate change.

    Scientific Reality–SCIENCE IS TRUE WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IN IT OR NOT.-Neil Degrasse Tyson
    3.5C (6.3F) above baseline by 2035 if add in feedbacks (melting permafrost releasing methane, …)
    -International Energy Agency peer-reviewed study. We are now 1.5F above baseline.
    Whether human civilization can exist at 6.3F …is problematic.

    James Lovelock: ‘enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan’
    The scientist (Gaia Hypothesis and…) believes catastrophe is inevitable, carbon offsetting is a joke and….

    A planetary emergency and hardly anyone in U.S. wants to address it in a significant enough way to….
    The U.S. has been the focal point of NOT addressing climate change. We haven’t been willing to do what is necessary to reduce our carbon emissions to the level of Europe (US-20tonsCO2/person/yr Europe-10 China-6 India-2 Africa-.5), and therefore China, India, and the developing world haven’t gotten on board either. I’ve offered to work with anti-fracking, anti-Mountaintop Removal, anti-Keystone groups if I could also address the overwhelming issue of Global Climate Change. ‘No thanks’ has been the response. Unlike northern Europe, most environmentalism in U.S. is NIMBY. After working as the assistant to an Arizona utility regulator for 14 years, I lost an election for that position in 2002, running on a platform of “no new coal and no to electricity deregulation.” The League of Conservation Voters endorsed my pro-coal and pro-deregulation opponents; later LCV supported Mt Gov Brian Schweitzer because he was good on local and state environmental issues, BUT he was pro-coal.
    US environmental groups seem to be satisfied with individual, local, and NIMBY responses to Global Climate Change. Anti-mountaintop removal spokespersons have said that coal is ok as long as it isn’t done with mountaintop removal… similar re Keystone, fracking,…

    From: rolandjames To: Jim Martin-Schramm, Luther College, Decorah Iowa
    Subject: ‘Save the Earth [Garden]’ The Lutheran 4/15…fracking…climate change…Date: 10 Apr 2015

    Thank you for your response. I rarely get a response. USAmericans seem to be satisfied with their individual and local responses to Global Climate Change (necessary but not nearly sufficient) or to be asleep and don’t want to be bothered. There is little sense of urgency. Maybe people have been neutralized by the “Merchants of Doubt”, a recent Robert Kenner-directed documentary, or…?
    Maybe they would wake up if they went on a trip to baked Alaska or Greenland. Gretel Ehrlich, a PEN USA recipient in non-fiction and author of numerous books (The Future of Ice (2004)…) and articles, including ‘Letter from Greenland: Rotten Ice–Traveling by dogsled in the melting Arctic’ (Harper’s April 2015) with her interactions with Inuit and Danish hunters and climate scientists over the last three decades: It used to be clear skies, cold weather, calm seas, spring ice 6 to 10 feet thick; now 7 inches ‘breaking up from beneath because of wind and stormy waters’…melting of Greenland ice sheet raise sea levels 20 feet and interrupt the Gulfstream Current…Jason Box {the climate scientist in ‘Chasing Ice’ doc} moved his camp farther north, where he continued his attempts to unveil the subtle interactions between atmosphere and earth, water, and ice, and the ways algae and industrial and wildfire soot affect the reflectivity of the Greenland ice sheet: the darker the ice, the more heat it absorbs. As part of his recent Dark Snow Project, he used small drones to fly over the darkening snow and ice. By the end of August 2014, Jason’s reports had grown increasingly urgent. “We are on a trajectory to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems, leading to mass famine and conflict,” he wrote. “Sea-level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply must lower atmospheric carbon emissions.” A later message: “If even a small fraction of Arctic seafloor methane is released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked.” From an I.P.C.C. meeting in Copenhagen last year, he wrote: ‘We have very limited time to avert climate impacts that will ravage us irreversibly.’”-Gretel Ehrlich’s ‘Letter from Greenland Rotten Ice Traveling by dogsled in the melting Arctic’ Harper’s April 2015

    From: Jim Martin-Schram Date: 9 Apr 2015 Re: ‘Save the Earth [Garden]’ The Lutheran 4/15…

    Thanks for your email. I support your call for a universal carbon tax with proceeds refunded to U.S. citizens. The sooner we attach a price to carbon the better. In fact, I have proposed Luther College self-impose a carbon tax on its own emissions….

    On Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 1:56 PM, Roland James wrote:

    I have worked in energy and the environment most of my adult life and have been trying to get a more significant political response to Global Climate Change for a couple of decades now. After working as the assistant to an Arizona utility regulator for 14 years, I lost an election for that position in 2002, running on a platform of “no new coal and no to electricity deregulation.” The League of Conservation Voters endorsed my pro-coal and pro-deregulation opponents.
    I’ve been pushing a carbon tax with 100% return equally or across the board, using the state Initiative process available in about half the states, to start to change the dialogue for a US and then an international solution. The response of environmentalists to this has been less than enthusiastic, to put it mildly, though activists used Nuclear Safeguards Initiatives in 7 states in the mid 70s (i was co-ordinator in Az) to change the public dialogue about nuclear power and nuclear proliferation after India and Pakistan developed nuclear bombs from the “peaceful” nuclear reactor technology they got from US and President Nixon had promised a thousand nuclear power plants in the US by 2000; none have been started in construction since those initiatives.
    Unfortunately, many in the US have bought into trying to finesse climate change, such as Ca’s AB32 Cap & Trade, while the developing world considers Cap & Trade to be a way for the US to continue to live big and rich while they continue to live small and poor.
    Now, US-20 tons CO2/person/year Europe-10 China-6 India-2 Africa-.5. In the next 25 years, 85% of the 50% projected growth in carbon emissions is expected to come from the developing world (DOE-EIA IEA, whereas Kyoto: 80% reduction below 1990 level by 2050).

    To focus on a couple of issues brought up in the article: I keep getting these thick envelopes from Food & Water Watch to ban fracking nationwide.

    Ca Gov Jerry Brown says he would rather there be some fracking in Ca than to be importing oil to fill Ca and US humungous demand for oil.

    “We’re standing on dry ground, and we should be standing on five feet of snow.”-Ca Gov Jerry Brown explaining why he ordered Ca’s first-ever mandatory reduction in water usage to combat an enduring drought. {Maybe it’s too late…, but shouldn’t there be mandatory reduction in the use of oil and coal, which are the causes of anthropogenic global warming leading to drought… … extinction?
    Gretel Ehrlich’s Letter from Greenland (April 2015 Harper’s) and Forests Tipping to Death (April 2015 National Geographic), etc., etc…. are causing me to question whether we have any chance to stop extinction (The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert and James Lovelock [Gaia hypothesis….] gives us 20 years before the —- hits the fan). Anglican leader Rowan Williams: God will not save humankind from its own stupidity.

    Pine beetles have spread east to the Black Hills and now are spreading east across Canada. All over the world drought-stressed forests are being tipped toward death by rising temperatures.-National Geographic April 2015, 20 pages of text by Hillary Rosner and photographs by Peter Essick

    “If we don’t take it out of our ground, we’ll take it out of someone else’s,” Ca Gov Jerry Brown said.
    Oil from foreign lands has often been extracted without minimal environmental, safety, and human rights concerns. The 1996 book ‘Savages’ by Joe Kane tells of the destruction of native people and the Ecuadorian rainforest by US oil interests, quoting a native leader: “Americans kill without knowing they are doing it. You don’t want to know you are doing it. Yet you are going to destroy an entire way of life. So you tell me: Who are the savages?”

    California environmentalists have had concern about drilling for oil off the Ca coast and about fracking in Ca but haven’t had much concern about drilling in Ecuador though most of the oil from Ecuador is refined in Ca and burned in Ca vehicles.

    Chevron has blamed native people of Ecuador for mistreating a U.S-based multinational oil company in a lawsuit over how oil was extracted from near the headwaters of the Amazon River and decimated the environment and native peoples: “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like Chevron–companies that have made big investments around the world.”-Newsweek 8/4/08 p27.
    The US also gets 40% of Nigeria’s oil; Nigeria’s offshore spills equal that of the Exxon Valdez.

    Many in the US think that the oil ‘over there’, under someone else’s ground, is our oil. It is the attitude of the schoolyard bully.

    There is no mention of reduction of US oil demand in almost all the numerous messages I’ve received from environmental groups and others: just stop drilling off the US coast, in ANWR and on US public lands…and now Ban Fracking.
    However, there’s a large number of US consumers who just want cheap oil and don’t want to think about the environmental effects in foreign lands or for future generations. They seem to care little about melting Arctic ice, forests dying, or oil spills off the west coast of Africa or near the Ecuadorian headwaters of the Amazon River–even though the US gets much of our humungous oil demand from foreign pristine places.

    In the last couple of years, ELCA colleges have invited climate-denying speakers to their campuses, as if climate change was just another issue among many and all sides need to be heard. This doesn’t surprise me. Anti-mountaintop removal spokespersons have said that coal is ok as long as it isn’t done with mountaintop removal, etc. ….

    I have appreciated books and articles by Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda.

    Roland James
    Concordia Moorhead Mn 1969

    Dear future generations (if you are there): Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petrol and air-conditioned comfort.-Kurt Vonnegut

  • Actually, seeing rolandjames318’s comment, I would be interested in reading your (Mr. Heinberg) thoughts about peak oil and climate change. I understand that most of the IPCC’s predictions are based on ever increasing use of oil, based on increasing demand. But if we reach peak energy production in coming years, those predictions will be significantly worse than what is likely to happen. Or, could be that our going after dirtier sources like tar sands, etc.will make things even worse than the IPCC’s predictions? Interested in your thoughts.

  • Society is held together by vertical hierarchical transactions enforced by the threat of initiation of coercive force and violence. It is energy-intensive.

    Community coheres through voluntary, non-coercive horizontal non-hierarchical interactions, very few of which are transactions.

    Society tries to monitor, regulate, prescribe and proscribe all such interactions. In times of resource scarcity, society will usurp the role of community and commandeer community resources for its own purposes.

    Extending community dismantles society, and vice versa.

  • Robin(Datta), Don’t you think Community is just a smaller version of Society? – even if it starts as your description of Community, it grows into your description of Society, I’d have thought.

  • The distinction is simple: no coercive force or violence.

  • This advocacy of measures to cope with what is going wrong with industrialized civilization would be much better if it took into account three fundamental physical principles. They are:

    Irreplaceable natural resources, including those supplying energy, are irreversibly used in the construction, operation and maintenance of the technological systems

    These systems irrevocably age

    They produce material wastes that pollute land, sea, air and organisms while damaging terrestrial (by climate change) and marine (by ocean heating and acidification) eco systems

    Consequently, the operation of these technological systems is an unsustainable process. society neds to understand these principles if it is to ease the inevitable powering down.