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Richard Heinberg on ‘America First’

February 7, 2017


Eight minutes into his inauguration speech, Donald Trump presented one of his key policy shifts. “America First”, he announced.  And then, again, in case anyone had missed it, this time more slowly and deliberately, “America First”.  He went on to embellish: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families”.

From a Transition perspective, a shortening of trade distances has to be a good thing, right?  Bringing manufacturing back closer to where people live, thereby reducing carbon emissions, enabling more money to cycle within the national economy rather than globally?  So far, so Transition… And yet.  Over the next few weeks, we will be talking to leading figures in the relocalisation movement, and asking them what distinguishes their approach and that of Trump.

We start with Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow with the Post-Carbon Institute, who for the last 10 or 15 years has written mostly on energy issues but also the larger questions about how society has evolved to its current situation and what the opportunities and challenges are likely to be going forward.  You can either hear the podcast, or read an edited transcript below.

As somebody who has argued very strongly for the idea of intentional localisation and building economic resilience and for a move away from globalisation, what do you think of ‘America First’?

Firstly it’s important to understand that this is one of the main things that got Trump elected.  Americans I think across the board have been becoming more and more wary about the hidden costs of globalisation.  There were a number of us thumping that tub all the way back in the 1990s of course.

Folks may remember the ‘Battle in Seattle’ in 1999 when there was a World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle and it was disrupted by masses of people in the streets.  But that was a phenomenon of the Left and meanwhile simmering under the radar, to mix metaphors, a lot of ordinary folks who would certainly not consider themselves radicals or leftists or anything like that, in the US, found themselves increasingly experiencing declining or stagnant wages and moving to lower wage jobs, and seeing that at least partly as a result of off-shoring of production.  The US moving its manufacturing to China and other countries, Mexico.

So there was this simmering undercurrent of resentment about globalisation that Donald Trump was able to tap into.  Now he, having been elected, is acting on his campaign promises left and right, often quite scarily.  Usually with very little forethought as to how he’s actually going to accomplish things.

So most of these Executive Orders are very poorly written, most of them are being drafted either directly by or with the collaboration of his inner circle of decision makers including Steve Bannon.  And Bannon, for those who don’t know, formerly ran a far-right website called Breitbart, and has been quoted as saying, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too.  I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  So that’s who Steve Bannon is.

“If all we’re able to do over the next four years is resist some of the worst of what Trump is proposing, then at the end of that time, we will certainly not be in any better position to deal with what’s coming down the road”.

What the Trump administration is doing is it’s creating chaos left and right.  It’s exacerbating the already extreme political polarisation in the country.  So you have the Red states and the Blue states.  And people are moving.  People who see themselves as conservative are leaving the Blue states and moving to the Red states and vice-versa.  The country is I think possibly approaching another civil war.  Or at least a dissolution of a lot of the basic ties that have bound together the States since the Civil War.  This is truly a political and governmental crisis of proportions that we really haven’t seen, again, since the Civil War.  I think it would be wrong to underestimate the prospects for chaos and repression in the United States right now.

And in terms of that ‘America First’ concept, how does the way that Donald Trump’s brain imagine ‘American First’ differ from the way Richard Heinberg’s brain imagines the concept of ‘America First’?

I have been among those who have been calling for import substitution and relocalisation of production.  I’ve been calling for that in the context of a deliberate policy of de-growth.  Winding down the rate at which we use energy and materials, so that we can approach some kind of sustainable level of economic throughput.  Of course, that’s not a very popular position.  But that’s really the context in which I see localisation as being a sensible policy.

In my view localisation is something that is led by communities themselves.  The role of the government should be to empower local communities to take more charge of their own economies, to disadvantage big chain stores and importers in favour of local producers, for example.  Right now of course it’s just the opposite situation.

The larger corporations, chain stores, and importers of goods are generally systematically advantaged over Mom and Pop stores and small factories and so on.  So that’s the kind of localisation that I and many others have been promoting.  What we’re seeing with Trump is, I think, more along the lines of American big corporations, American big banks first.  Of course this is being sold to the American people as, “This is going to create more jobs for you and your hometowns” and Trump is a sales man first and foremost above everything.  So of course if he does manage to save a few hundred jobs here or there, he immediately takes credit for that and plays it up big time.

But from a larger perspective, his interests lie not with the little person, the local co-op, but with the big Wall Street interests.  Bannon, for example, was formerly with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, and Trump has surrounded himself with Goldman Sachs former, or even current executives.  So nobody should kid themselves that this guy is a genuine localist.  His ‘America First’ rhetoric really is geared I think to some possibly kind of batty geo-political ideas and economic ideas that may or may not end up making sense in the real world.

Do you think if America were to make its own steel again, make its own cars, make its own washing machine, to actually rebuild those things and have a protectionist policy around doing that, is that an entirely bad thing?  Is there a way in which that could be done well?  And how would that differ from what he’s trying to do?

It could be done well.  And it should be done.  I agree that America should be making more of its own washing machines or whatever.  It’s going to have to be done in a way that understands the ecological context.  What I mean when I say that is that the process of off-shoring that’s taken place over the past few decades has among other things resulted in the off-shoring of pollution.

So China burns coal to make steel and plastic products and all kinds of stuff for American consumers to buy on the cheap.  So if we repatriate all that production, does that mean we also repatriate all that pollution?  Well evidently Donald Trump thinks that’s the case and he’s perfectly fine with it because he’s in the process of ripping up all the environmental regulations he can possibly get his hands on.  He’s gutting and dismantling the EPA, put a climate denier in charge of it, and wants to increase US coal production dramatically.  Whether that’s realistic or not is another question.

If we’re going to repatriate American production, I would say we also have to look at how things are produced.  What we’re producing, why we’re producing it.  What’s the full life cycle of resource extraction, consumption and production of waste at the end of the cycle.  How do we minimise the ecological impact of that?  That’s not even in discussion among the Trump team.

[Richard Heinberg quote]

What would be your advice to Transitioners and relocalisers be at this time?

Well, resistance to the Trump regime is certainly needed and we’re seeing really an extraordinary outpouring of concern and willingness to engage in on the ground political work across the country.  That’s important and that’s needed.

It’s also essential to keep in mind that Transition is about fundamentally something other than that.  Transition is about building the basis for a different world, a different way of life.  It’s a constructive process rather than one of resistance.  Again that resistance is needed but Transition offers a positive, constructive and even visionary path of action that’s desperately needed right now.  If all we’re able to do over the next four years is resist some of the worst of what Trump is proposing, then at the end of that time, we will certainly not be in any better position to deal with what’s coming down the road.

What Transitioners know that most other people don’t is that society is inexorably approaching a Transition toward lower or negative economic growth, that fossil fuels are on their way out one way or another, and that that means inevitably some fundamental changes in the way we live.  So Transition approaches that change in a positive, optimistic attitude, saying, “Well how can we build the basis for a way of life that takes into account these inevitable shifts?”  And engages with them proactively, engages with them in an attitude that says, “How can we do this the best way possible?”  So without Transition I think we’re in for the worst of the worst, and Transition is more important than ever in a world of Donald Trump.

You’ve referred to him elsewhere as the ‘Peak Oil President’.  What did you mean by that?

I think it’s very likely that global oil production will hit its maximum in the next 2, 3, 4 years.  I’ve become very hesitant about making predictions like that after the last number of years, because I’ve been writing about peak oil since my 2003 book, ‘The Party’s Over’.

In that book I endorsed the views of the French petrologist Jean Laherrère who said that global conventional oil production would probably peak sometime around 2005-2010, which it did, and that that would incentivise the production of more unconventional oil, which is exactly what we’ve seen with US tight oil production, Canadian tar sands and so on.  And that unconventional production would probably peak sometime around 2015.  It seems to me that events are confirming his forecast.

Therefore world oil production is probably hitting its maximum right about now, you know, give or take a few years.  That’s going to have immense implications for the global economy, and certainly for the US economy.  I don’t think Donald Trump understands any of this.  There are some people who are advising him who do, but whether their efforts to influence his thinking are successful or even meaningful, I don’t know.  Nevertheless this is a big turning point in history.

Oil is very hard to substitute.  It runs the global economy and without increasing oil production it’s very difficult to imagine the global economy continuing to grow.  That in turn has enormous implications for investments, for stock markets, and therefore also for jobs and wages and the things that most people care about.  So we’re at a big inflexion point, and to have someone like Donald Trump in charge of this fragile moment in history…

On one hand it’s entirely understandable, because people feel that things are going wrong, and therefore they’re willing to vote for somebody who is basically promising just to bring down the temple and create a lot of chaos.  But on the other hand, having someone like that in charge at this moment in history is very worrisome, because things could be done potentially in a much more sane and humane way than we’re likely to see.

Originally published at Transition Network.

One Comment, RSS

  • I have not listened to several of Richard’s podcasts now because you have decided not to provide a download link at soundcloud. I listen while jogging, or not at all.