Heinberg on Reinventing Human Life on Earth
by Lorraine Anderson
Our new phones may be smart, but are they sustainable? Speaking in the Corvallis High School auditorium on Wednesday night, Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality and senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org), proposed that unless we can devise a way to manufacture smartphones from renewable materials with local labor in church basements, the future of these gadgets manufactured with rare metals and cheap labor in the developing world is in question. And a whole lot else is in question, too, since according to Heinberg, “We live in a pyramid scheme and we think of it as normal.”
We knew that, didn’t we? If we’ve been paying attention, we’ve noticed that our economy (which is, Heinberg reminds us, a subsidiary of the environment) is being stressed in three major ways. First and most visibly, there’s the fact that economic growth depends on ever-expanding debt, and internal limits to such debt seem to have been met. Then there’s the real economy of energy and raw materials, where oil is not so easily extracted as previously in our 200-year-long petroleum party. And worst but easiest to deny is the fact that the costs of weird weather (a.k.a. climate change) and resulting industrial accidents (such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster) are rising exponentially.
What’s a species to do? Heinberg suggests that it’s important to stay positive in the face of a transition as big as those spurred by the discovery of fire, the development of language, the advent of agriculture, and the industrial revolution. This is when we grow up as a species, he says, and adapt to environmental limits by building local resilience (defined as the ability to absorb shocks and continue to function). We can draw on those goods that have not peaked like oil has: community, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, health of the environment, happiness, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. And, I would add, creativity.
I couldn’t help but notice the preponderance of gray hair in the two-thirds-full auditorium, meaning this audience, like Heinberg, mostly came of age as the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth hit the bookstores in 1972. We perhaps share an unspoken agreement that such limits exist. But what are the young people thinking? They were probably in the majority in the crowd that went to hear the young Brit Mark Lynas (www.marklynas.org), author of The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, speak on the OSU campus last night. In his book, Lynas asserts that we need to use our technological mastery over nature and specifically such “environmentally friendly” technologies as genetic engineering and nuclear power to save our habitat. Does this approach have more traction with a younger generation raised on tech? Perhaps so.
But the viewpoints of Heinberg and Lynas and the Republican presidential candidates aside, all anyone knows for sure is that nature bats last.