Excerpt from Richard Heinberg's 2004 book:
|Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World|
have again been reading my copy of Powerdown: Options and Actions for a
Post Carbon World, Richard Heinberg, 2004. Available at
I had forgotten how good it is. It contains many perfect little essays that come very close to being publishable entirely on their own. This excerpt deals with compromises of advocacy that keep "the movement" from dealing with the problems that will determine our fate. -- Robert Bériault
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The Choice of the Movement
The world's environmental, anti-war, anti-globalization, and human rights organizations (which came to be called "the Other Superpower" during the vast anti-war demonstrations of the spring of 2003 --but which, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to simply as "the Movement", have a radically different view of the situation from that of the ruling elites. The Movement's primary interest is in dispersing power and wealth, rather than further concentrating them; in preventing war and countering political repression; and in protecting the Earth's fragile ecosystems.
Unfortunately, the tide of history is currently moving the other way --toward more consolidation of power and wealth, toward the development and dispersal of ever more horrific weapons, and toward increased rates of resource extraction and environmental destruction. The Movement's response is not to give up, but to push harder, while maintaining the moral high ground. The task of changing the direction of events may appear hopeless; nevertheless, in the view of Movement leaders, opposing war and oppression is the right thing to do, regardless of the odds. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King confronted entrenched patterns of social inequity, and at first their efforts to change these patterns seemed hopeless to many. But by perseverance, and by moral example and persuasion, they prevailed. The leaders of the Movement take the same attitude today: however daunting their undertaking may appear, the alternative -- allowing the world to slide further into war, tyranny, and environmental ruin -- is simply unacceptable.
The Movement has a blind spot, however: while it addresses a wide range of issues related to militarism, inequality, environmental depredation, and injustice, it cannot easily speak to resource and population issues. That is because Movement leaders -- like the leaders of established governmental, economic, and military institutions -- are vulnerable to political incentives and constraints that prevent them from coming to grips with the most fundamental facts about our species-wide ecological dilemma.
For Movement leaders, the primary incentive must be to attract the interest and loyalty of multitudes. Since the Movement lacks formal political power, only the support of the masses can give it potency. There is a further incentive: it is highly desirable for all of the various issue organizations of the Movement ( organizations to clean up toxic waste, to save endangered species, to ban land mines, to promote minority rights, to oppose military aggression, and on and on), to work together, and to present a united front. United, they are powerful; divided, they are like so many gnats pestering the elite-driven Leviathan.
However, some of the organizations making up the Movement -- principally the human rights and environmental organizations -- actually have diverging interests. Human rights workers deal with immediate, concrete instances of repression and atrocity. They take a principled stand, but with a very few exceptions are disinclined to take a long view with regard to population and resource issues. Environmentalists often have a better understanding of population and resources: they see how closely every impending ecological catastrophe is related to the burgeoning human population. A few environmentalists go further in their thinking and draw connections between population pressure and resource depletion on one hand, and war and economic exploitation on the other.
This difference in emphasis may seem fairly trivial when stated this way, but, as we are about to see, it is crucial. The nub of the problem is this: The population issue is problematic from a human-rights perspective, because no one has yet been able to envision a way of significantly reducing the total human population of the planet over the course of the next few decades without resorting to some method that would compromise what many regard as the most sacred of human rights -- the right to reproduce. So, for the sake of solidarity and mutual support, the two sets of organizations tend to downplay their differences. But this requires that environmental organizations refrain from speaking frankly about one of the central problems of our era.
By any reasonable assessment, the Earth has already exceeded its carrying capacity for humans: every basic means of life-support (including the world's oceans, topsoils, and fresh water systems) appears to be in the beginning stages of collapse. The depletion of fossil fuels will put much more pressure on the global ecosystem's ability to sustain a large human population, since currently much of that population is supported by industrial agriculture and the long-distance transportation of food and other resources from regions where they are abundant to places where they are scarce; and, as we have seen, transportation and industrial agriculture are highly vulnerable to reduced fuel inputs. As mentioned in the Introduction, just since 1998 (when the global population reached 6 billion) we have added yet another 400 million to the total -- nearly the population of North America. Where is the support system for these people? It is ludicrous to think of the world finding a North America's worth of resources, and building a North America's worth of support infrastructure every six years in order to support the human lives added through current rates of population growth. Thus, more population growth just means more poverty, more misery.
Ultimately, ignoring the population issue will be a catastrophe for human rights, since population pressure is reliably one of the primary drivers of environmental destruction. With continued population growth, ever more resource competition will become inevitable, even in the face of heroic efforts to fairly redistribute whatever resources are still available. The Movement seeks peace, freedom, equality, and justice. But with too many people trying to inhabit a finite planet, the ecological requirements for these desirable conditions will vanish. Ecologists familiar with human history (and historians familiar with the principles of ecology) know that peace, cooperation, equity, and justice are most easily realized in a condition in which population is low relative to the available resources (though there have been exceptions). The Industrial Revolution simply added a new twist to this rule: the drawdown of fossil fuels temporarily enabled us to extract and transport other resources at a faster rate, so as to create "phantom" carrying capacity. As the remainder of Earth's finite gift of fossil fuels is burned, that new, temporary carrying capacity will disappear; and as biological support systems are further damaged by the demands of over-populated industrial societies, we may see Earth's baseline carrying capacity for humans plummet.
But the best the Movement can do is to plead for a "stabilization" of human population at around 7.4 billion -- the low range of UN estimates for 2050 --through the means of educating women and distributing birth control information and devices. These methods should certainly be pursued, but will they be enough to prevent a human and environmental catastrophe? If the Earth is barely -- and only temporarily -- able to support the current human population, even with the gift of cheap fossil fuels, then a mere "stabilization" of human numbers is no solution.
Environmentalists typically agree to soft-pedal the population issue not only because it conflicts with the views of human-rights activists, but also because population reduction is hard to sell to the general public. People just don't want to hear about it. The simple distribution of birth-control devices and information is already politically problematic because of pressures from the Catholic Church and US political reactionaries. Thus even population "stabilization" is a contentious issue and tends to be downplayed. To speak of an actual reduction of human population -- exactly what is needed if the world is to avoid unprecedented human dieoff through famine, pestilence, and war -- is unthinkable and unspeakable, at least in polite company. Not just Catholics and conservatives, but liberals as well become positively apoplectic if the subject is broached.
And so the discussion necessary to understanding our ecological dilemma, and dealing effectively with it, never occurs.
The Movement also, though to a lesser degree, soft-pedals per-capita resource consumption issues. The current level of economic inequity in the world, and within many countries, is astonishing. A mere 500 people -- the world's richest -- control as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity. The Movement rightly highlights this inequality and demands some sort of wealth redistribution. Sometimes Movement leaders go so far as to say that the wasteful lifestyles of people in the industrialized world -- and here they refer principally to the US and Canada -- must change, because the world doesn't have enough resources to enable everyone to live like a typical North American. This is a point that needs stressing. Human impact on the environment is not measured by population levels alone, but by population multiplied by per-capita resource consumption. If we are to navigate the next few decades peaceably, we must both reduce population and reduce per-capita resource usage in both the wealthier countries and the wealthier segments of poor countries.
But this latter message doesn't always go down well with North Americans who have grown accustomed to their consumptive habits. And it is North Americans and Europeans who provide most of the funding for the Movement's various organizations. And so the politically acceptable prescription from the Movement's more mainstream organizations tends to be, raise living standards in poor countries. This benign-sounding strategy goes by the name "development," and it is virtually sacrosanct among non-governmental organizations. In practical effect, development has meant turning poor nations into shabby imitations of rich ones, building cities on the industrial model while undermining traditional subsistence agriculture. It has been a tragedy for indigenous, sustainable cultures worldwide, and the resulting teeming urban centers will likely be sites of immense human tragedy in the decades ahead. What is needed is not the further "development" of the poor countries, but the systematic and intelligent de-industrialization of both rich and poor ones.
If we were living in a world that weren't on the brink of resource depletion and environmental collapse, then we might envision a win-win scenario in which rich nations could keep their two-car lifestyle, while countries like China and India could gradually come up to speed, with formerly poor families gradually acquiring washing machines, cars, and microwave ovens until they, too, lived a version of the American dream. But that is a fantasy world. The reality is that no country will be able to maintain a quasi-American lifestyle for its citizens past the first or second decade of this century. Someone must tell the Chinese to abandon their dreams of owning BMWs, and someone must tell Americans to ditch their SUVs and start growing backyard gardens.
But woe to the messenger. People in the poorer countries understandably resent being told that they will never enjoy the comforts that Americans and Europeans take for granted. And of course Americans prefer to think that, as their president has told them, their current way of life is "non-negotiable." Whenever the population/resource discussion begins, it tends quickly to devolve into a bout of finger-pointing: North Americans highlight the overpopulation of poor countries of Africa and Asia, but tend to overlook their own unsustainable levels of resource consumption. Meanwhile, Movement leaders from the poorer countries tend to focus on the global inequity of per-capita resource consumption, and to ignore the population issue. Each side is correct in its criticism of the other: North Americans' and Europeans' rates of consumption contribute to making their own countries dramatically overpopulated ( since overpopulation, like human environmental impact, is a function of sheer human numbers multiplied by per-capita rates of resource consumption); meanwhile, the overpopulation of a country like India is not due simply to the fact that rich Westerners are soaking up most of the world's resources: India's ecosystems are collapsing and famine appears increasingly likely as food production in that country begins to decline.
The world must do both -- reduce human population and reduce per-capita resource consumption in the industrialized regions -- if society is to power down rather than collapse in chaos. The Earth cannot afford rich people, nor can it continuously support six billion humans and counting at any standard of living. But this news pleases no one. If the Movement were to truly embrace it, the elites would pounce, and it would be the easiest PR takedown in history. A few well-paid public relations firms would place some ads and op-ed pieces, and an "authoritative" study or two would be issued saying, in effect, "Nonsense! There is plenty for everyone; technology and the market will fix everything." Broadcast commentators would pile on, polls would be taken, and the foolish notion that humans actually face ecological constraints, just as all other organisms do, would be thoroughly discredited and banished from serious conversation. Imagine how the talk show hosts would rant: "Reduce our standard of living? Now 'they' are trying to take away your car! " -- a car that will cease to run anyway when oil becomes prohibitively expensive. "Reduce population? Why that sounds like genocide!" -- which, ironically, is exactly what the elites themselves are preparing for through their investments in nuclear bombs and genetic bio-weapons.
And so the critical message is muted and truncated. The Movement tailors its utterances for maximum public-relations effectiveness, just as the elites do. Politics trumps truth.
Even though the Movement calls for Powerdown, what is being suggested is not a strategy that could actually succeed; rather, it is Powerdown Lite, a soft and toothless version that, if enacted, would only slightly postpone the human dieoff. Instead of calling for a massive reduction in energy usage by industrial societies, Movement leaders sing the praises of the illusory hydrogen economy. They promote the reasonable idea that there will be enough for everyone, as long as goods are fairly distributed -- but omit the other necessary conditional phrase: if human numbers are kept within the long-term carrying capacity of the environment and human demands are kept modest.
I am pounding on this point because it is not an incidental one. Population pressure and resource depletion are not side issues; they are the issues. The Movement largely ignores the core dilemma facing humanity because it has no politically agreeable solution for it. The elites have no solution either, but they do have a fallback strategy: competition, repression, and war. It is a terrible strategy, and someone needs to propose a workable alternative. Instead, what we get is a greenish version of Waiting for the Magic Elixir.
Perhaps I am being unfair. The Movement is at least pushing more or less in the right direction, and what it proposes is certainly better than nothing. But I find it disappointing to watch many leaders of the Movement subject themselves to a pattern of self-deception similar to that prevailing among the elites. In this case, the incentives and constraints are different, but in one respect the result is the same: almost no one speaks frankly about the crisis ahead of us.
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