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Afterburn video 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns

April 7, 2015

Part one of a four-part video series. Released in conjunction with Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels.

Is modern society hitting our defining moment, the point of diminishing returns?

In this short video, Richard Heinberg explores how — in our economy, the environment, and energy production — we may well be. When previous societies have hit similar limits, they often doubled-down by attempting ever more complex interventions to keep things going, before finally collapsing. Will this be our fate too? And is there an alternative?

This video is the first in a four-part series by Richard Heinberg and Post Carbon Institute. (View the entire series here.) The themes covered in these videos are much more thoroughly explored in Heinberg’s latest book, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels.

Special thanks to New Society Publishers for partnering with us on this fantastic series and to Shutterstock.com for granting image rights.





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Feature image: Richard on the set, by Tod Brilliant

36 Comments, RSS

  • So well said and so self-evident, RIchard. But can it penetrate the miasma of white noise?

  • What’s that Neoagrarian? I can’t hear you over CNN in the background. 😉

    Great video PCI. I look forward to reading the new book.

  • Well, Mr. Heinberg has got it down and he just keeps getting better at it. He stands on the shoulders of giants like Howard T. Odum (net energy and maximum power), Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (entropy law and economics), Jay Wright Forrester (system and world dynamics), William Ophuls (ecology and politics), Albert Bartlett (the exponential function), William Catton (over population), Joseph Tainter (social complexity). We have had over 40 years to get our civilization to deal with issues of unlimited growth on a finite planet. Having failed to do that, we are now in more trouble than we can possibly imagine.

  • George Doddington

    I’ve been a fan of Richard Heinberg for a number of years, but I must admit that this short video on “the law of diminishing returns” was a disappointment. Too glib, very unconvincing. Surely PCI can do better.

  • If you want the full version take the collapse of complex societoes.by Joseph Tainter. Its very easy to understand. As a society reaches a limit defined by the boundaries of the system it experiences a slow-dowm im economic activity and negative returns which mean collapse. Since we ate at the global limits we are already experiencing that (actially more like declime but the US government/private sector and other powers are interested in cooking the books and saying everything is all right for their own sake)

  • Agreed. Which, as someone young who just graduated from university in economics and that feels he is been eating a scam over four years, makes we wonder what to so next. Probably by understanding that collapse is inevitable and we have to do.our best to adjust amd educate others to do it im the most human, cooperative and just way. This is an argument that heimdberg lays out. I think spirituality is a good way to go to.

  • George Doddington

    I’m a fully vested disciple, no convincing needed. I was criticizing the video, not the intended message.

  • of course these are wise suggestions for necessary change but unfortunately, most people’s lifestyle is non-negotiable. who is willing to stop breeding, reduce or eliminate animal products from their diet, end traveling for pleasure, and radically reduce their consumption? everyone i know is continuing on… business as usual. even my “good green” friends are still living on carbon budgets in the 20+ ton per year range, while asking me to vote for this or that person to i guess, do the changing for them.

    and speaking of the political system, tell me what politician is running on the platform of “vote for me for a harder (and more sustainable) life”? and if they did, who would vote for that??

    this means change will have to come by force and that won’t likely be pretty.
    so my suggestion for those who are brave enough to see the unfolding catastrophe is:

    1) do what you can to mitigate what is coming &

    2) enjoy these amazing days at the crescendo of humanity. 🙂

  • Hey George, thanks for the feedback. Curious to hear what wasn’t up to snuff for you specifically in this video?

  • George Doddington

    Okay, I looked at the video again, and overall it just seemed too glib, too know-it-all, too condescending. Other than that, it’s just details. The expresso example was irrelevant. The video clips associated with the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth were irrelevant and dated. Heinberg’s visual background was stark and distracting. Perhaps I’m being too critical, but if it hit me like that I fear that a less supportive audience might be less receptive. For me more specifics, more facts, more palpable examples would be more compelling, but I suppose that is difficult for a short overarching video.

  • disqus_lI3fxXkYMr

    As a sixty-something senior, I won’t be able to make all the adaptations and learn the new (old) skills I could have in my younger days (though that’s not an excuse not to try). But my #1 goal is to expand and deepen my community of friends and neighbors so we’ll be there to support each other as the hard times roll in. My baby boomer generation will also have to ask some hard questions about end-of-life/ quality-of-life choices, as we’ll not likely have the expensive medical care and assisted living accommodations that our parents enjoyed.

  • The video is interesting, but I was troubled by lack of synchrony between the visual and the audio. Mr. Heinberg’s mouth kept moving in the absence of sound, and sound emerged when his mouth wasn’t moving. To understand the video, I found it useful to close my eyes when Mr. Heinberg was on screen. Was this just my problem, or did others notice it, too?

  • Brilliant video, Richard! Really, excellent!

    Connie and I are half-way through reading Afterburn aloud to each other. How wonderful to have so many of your great posts bound together. We’ll finish it up after I return from visiting Michael Mielke and Jean Arnold in Salt Lake City. We’re all singing your praises. 🙂

    Keep up the great work, brother… I can hardly wait to see the next video!

    Together for the future,

    ~ Michael (and Connie)

  • Understanding that collapse is inevitable… yes. It is inevitable in a way. But we must also shed our Hollywood conditioned expectation of collapse. It won’t be a “Road-Warrior” collapse(as much fun as that would be), It will be San Jose hiring fewer city maintenance workers. It will be you local dentist letting go/not re-hiring one of his assistants. The effects of what Mr. Heinberg so aptly describes, (I’ve been calling it “The Squeeze”), will be adapted to by a slow loss of complexity across our techno-civilization. SIMULTANEOUSLY we will note ever increasing volatility of all things energy, economic and (therefore) political.

    What to do…. Where one can… arrange, or plan for, or think about controlling the places where you are exposed to things which are going to be volatile. Some will become millionaires on the coming volatility. Others, well meaning and smart people, but just slightly out of financial balance at the wrong time, will get hammered by the volatility.
    This is where simplification and personal diversification can help.
    Dr. Gary Rutledge

  • George Doddington

    Verily. There is no escaping the most fundamental axiom, that evolution requires growth, to ensure survival, and humans have not escaped that mandate. But why live like slaves? For humans to live like kings and queens, we probably have the resources to sustain a global population size of perhaps about 100 million individuals. The question is how do we achieve this. Perhaps nuclear holocaust is the answer. The world seems to be edging toward this solution.

  • George – I’m also a long-time fan of Heinberg’s work (and used to be Post Carbon Fellow from 10 years ago, full disclosure)and I confess, I’ve had my criticisms over the years of presentation here and there. I don’t mind this video. It’s not the best ever, but not bad, I like several things about it actually, even the background. I think it’s ironically him trying reach out to more people, in today’s sadly short attention span world. Remember Aesop’s fable on the man, the boy, and the donkey? I think activists beat up on themselves or quibble (I’m guilty of doing that too, so not a criticism of you!) about style, which is fair enough, but in the end, better outreach, better funding, etc, would allow us to have a larger *variety* of formats and styles of messaging, so even while we may disagree on this or that example, more variety in presentation makes it more likely that each person can find one that will “click” for them.

    Shastatodd: I think I find hope in the fact this I do NOT see the present as the “crescendo of humanity” as you put it – if I have one criticism of the video (and I like it overall, even the bleak background, I think is good) it’s that I wish he’d emphasize this. We have not “had it good” Some people, not most. Not even the last 35 years, let alone the last 10. It’s not that people’s lifestyles are “non-negotiable” (they are for some stubborn folks but that’s not the majority) for most it’s getting the information PLUS lacking options – no safe high quality public transit where they live, or sprawl where they live so very very hard to avoid long commute etc.

    But back to my main point: our quality of life is NOT so high. We can help the environment and at the same time life HIGHER quality lives. I am happily child-free. Others can have higher quality with 1 child instead of 2 (or, for some, 2 instead of more). Providing more parenting to their one child, more support, and at the same time, more time for deeper relationships with family vegan in diet since 1994, for health is how it started, and later environment, though over time ethics played a larger and larger role. I do realize it’s harder for others. Each person is different. Maybe for them biking to work 5 days a week is easier than for me or you. But my point again is: HIGHER quality of life if it’s a good fit for where you life, and your own person.

    For me vegan has meant not lower, not “Equal” but far, far higher. Before going vegan it was lower on the salt. Again, the myth we’re told: “the food quality will not taste as good” but after your taste buds adjust (and after you learn to really season creatively yourself) the taste for low-saw omnivore was not “worse” not “the same” but BETTER. Same for lower fat, less sweets, less processed, and going pesco-vegetarian, then vegetarian then vegan, my experience has been, if I don’t push myself too far but research, experiment, try out, my quality of life has been HIGHER. For the person for whom biking to work is a good fit it’s not a “sacrifice” but (overall) a net POSITIVE for health, for mental happiness, and much more (like saving money and intangible empowerment feelings) and that’s before we even start talking about yes, it’s a right step for sustainability.

    None of this is to argue for “guilt tripping” What I’m saying it we can be less pessimistic because the quality of life can be higher, we just need to get that messag eout PLUS give people information, tools, resources, ability to network, and a wide ranging of possibilities from which to choose…among those, they can find those that are right for sustainability plus make their lives better. So they never have to choose between the right thing and quality of life: they are the same (even while recognizing, that individual choices alone will still leave us environmental catastrophes unless, additionally, we have industry and even systemic change as well – away from growth-based economics as Heinberg rightly points to, but that’s another big topic..

    The answer is not in politicians, but they do have a role to play. The message it “vote for me for a more rich, fulfilling (and more sustainable) life”


  • Also, a sixty something senior, I don’t feel exempt from the expectation that I learn new ways in response to the changes taking place around me. To adapt, in the hope of mitigating the worst of the predictions about the future, seems a responsibility of our generation. And, as a baby boomer, I’m grateful for the many good years and a childhood steeped in the belief in a bright future. It’s my turn to dig deeper, to look to what I can do to assure a livable future for those coming behind me.

  • Yes! Thank you Richard! Less population. Exactly! It is the key parameter if we want to be in balance with nature. Unfortunately, humans almost always want more and are programmed to seek out and find more resources and to expand into the environment. It may be impossible for us to change this slow-to-evolve programming.

  • I would like to add:

    3) make sure your sustainable farm has excellent military-like security because those that are starving are going to come visiting and they are not going to be nice about it.

  • So, 100 million people enjoying nuclear winters is living like kings and queens? lol

    I am with you 100 percent that it is all about the population numbers. However, evolution does not require growth. All other species live in balance with nature. When there is more food, the population grows, when there is less food, the population drops. Simple as that. They are unable to create debt for future energy production, like humans can do.

  • Let us be real – the fracking era has put the entire Peak Oil debate on hold. Many have even said Peak Oil is dead, like it is just a theory or something.

    Many in this industry still have to earn their livings, no matter if far less people are concerned or even listening. Many unconcerned people are even going to the showrooms and buying even bigger SUVs!

    So, we have to wait, until the fracking revolution hits a peak and starts to fall. When that happens, or if the current global economic bubble pops, people will come back to listen again.

    The Post Carbon Institute has produced so many great videos, articles and papers on our current situation that I find it crazy that so many refuse to see the light. Business as Usual and only getting better is just too hard of a fantasy to let go of.

  • Well said! I feel changing the very basic way humans act may be just as difficult as getting chimpanzees to design and build skyscrapers. We have our limits and overriding our basic growth-based programming may be about as easy as asking a fat person to give up cake for the rest of their life. They might be able to do it but they will be thinking about that cake every single day, hoping that one day someone will come along and tell them that eating that cake is not only acceptable but it is good for the nation.

  • Gary, your scenario is the absolute best case. Human history tells us that a far worse outcome is more likely. Resource wars are going to be the norm because depressed people are quick to follow a charismatic leader who has a plan to make it all better, if only they follow him. Hitler, anyone?

  • You two are depressingly cute. Reading books to each other aloud? I wonder what your pet names are. “Hey, snuggums, can you grab me an organic tomato from the back yard?”, Michael lovingly whispers. “Anything for you, my sweeties.”, replies Connie. lol.

  • He mentions solar panels taking energy and then suggests renewables as part of the answer. Hopefully an oversight on his part. Solar and wind energy collecting devices are extensions of the fossil fuel supply system and the global industrial infrastructure. They are simply more of the same business as usual. By this oversight, he creates false hope.

  • PCI is not often accused of creating false hope. Here’s something Richard wrote about the limitations/challenges of renewable energy: http://www.postcarbon.org/our-renewable-future-essay/.

  • He still talks up “renewables” by spending lots of time on them. The EROI on solar energy collecting devices is very low (see Hall and Prieto on Spain as well as Palmer on Australia) Look at just the energy, infrastructure and economies of scale just for the low iron glass used in solar energy collecting devices – http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/03/making-glass_8.html

    These devices are simply an extension as I mentioned originally. They won’t reproduce themselves. They won’t produce the auxiliary equipment needed. They won’t produce the very products we want the electricity for.

    It is comforting to prefer the noise of delusional magical thinking and pretending that the system of perpetual growth can work forever; that some variant of business as usual can persist. There is just too much tied up with it and any unraveling would be far too chaotic and unpredictable. Wrapping our heads around the eventualities of global warming; of overshoot; of the desecration of world wildlife; of the acidification of the
    oceans; of the poisoning of pollinators stymies. A world no longer powered by fossil fuels, no matter what incarnation, is almost inconceivable and for many terrifying.

    It is like a person diagnosed with lung cancer saying he/she will just smoke these organic, non sprayed cigarettes for a little bit longer instead of facing the reality of the situation, quitting and having the operation.

    I have been down this path with before with many “renewable” supporters. Believe what you wish. There is no free lunch.

  • I disagree with everyone’s analysis of a continued, human existence on this planet. History is replete with large, catastrophic failures–overshoot and collapse. Humanity is not exempt from the laws of physics. It’s actually very simple, if some take the carbon sequestered in the Earth and burn it as fast as they can, then–when the Earth’s thermostat bursts–we will all be killed by that action. Face the facts, some are going to snuff [the rest of us] out with their pathetically primitive, avarice and hubris–their megalomania. Lets not gloss over our inevitable demise with sentiment, denial or wishful thinking. It’s sad to know that the dirt poor around this pathetic planet–who are contributing little to the particulate problem–are going to be exterminated by the global North’s rabid addiction to hydro-carbon energy and an energy intensive lifestyle. Label me a pessimist but I refuse to smoke the hopeium.

  • Congratulations on surviving four years of studying economics with your intellect intact. I’ve been theorizing for years that such study rewires the brain. I wonder if you saw any such effect on your fellow students.

  • The fact that Richard’s essay in the link is 7,000 words is telling. Moving to renewables will not be easy; it may fail miserably. But there is no alternative.

  • Note from the director (me): Given that the vast majority of PCI’s supporters support in name only, there is a decided lack of funds available to purchase relevant high quality video footage.

    What content can be sourced freely/cheaply is rather limited, especially when one considers the somewhat esoteric nature of a lot of Richard’s teachings. I did find a perfect clip, for example, of year-specific LTG computers and technicians … at the cost of $300 for five seconds.

    With views (most on Facebook, as that platform is well on its way to dominating YouTube) and accolades pouring in, we are all happy that this video is achieving good success to date. If you enjoyed what you saw, I highly recommend visiting http://www.postcarbon.org/donate to ensure this type of educational material continues to flourish.

  • George Doddington

    Evolution does not require growth, you say?!!! Without growth (or more precisely the pressure and ability to grow), you’re toast. To successfully compete for resources in the game of survival, you must have the desire and ability to grow. This is what we call living “in balance with nature” as you so nicely put. You have, wittingly or not, made my point.

    We humans may think we’re smart enough to thrive without growth, but growth is foundational baggage of evolution, impossible to shed. Look around, everywhere in human culture you see that growth is deemed good, and necessary. It’s axiomatic. And so, without competition, homo sapiens continues to multiply. There are of course resource limits, with consequences that will surely be interesting if not predictable or palatable. I trust that I’ll be in the ground before then.

  • Having the desire to grow and to grow are two different things. How come you didn’t understand my example using all the other animal species? Their populations are dependent on the resources available. Simple as that. They live on the edge of existence.

    The hope is that humans can move beyond their animal desires. We have the ability to store and conserve our resources, to ration things out to balance out the fluctuations in supply, to work together to reduce the amount of suffering and pain seen by the weaker members of the society, like the elderly, injured and the children.

    I agree that we have yeast-like tendencies, that have evolved over time, and that it may be impossible for us humans to figure out how to manage our resources and move beyond our primitive programming. However, pushing the obvious problems under the rug by saying, “I’ll be in the ground before then.” simply justifies in your head all the pain and suffering we cause each other, as we now have forced extreme global resource overshoot, powered by the fossil fuel energy gift.

    It may be like asking chimpanzees to design and build skyscrapers but living in managed balance with nature is what is needed to have maximum peace and minimum pain and suffering throughout the entire human population.

  • It’s fine for me. You could try it on YouTube.

  • Thanks, Landbeyond. I’ll give YouTube a try.

  • I am just a humble web designer but it seems that having passed peak oil we need to channel the military budgets into creating free and renewable energies for everyone on a planet.