Richard Heinberg vs Tom Athanasiou: Peak Oil or Climate Emergency?

Debate Dec 15, 2011 between Richard Heinberg (Post Carbon Institute) and Tom Athanasiou (Earth Island Institute) at the David Brower Center.  Peak Oil or Climate Emergency? We know we’re in Big Trouble. But What Kind Exactly?

Climate change books and articles all have the same solution: renewable energy and a green economy, a good reason to have a debate, since the Post Carbon Peak Oil message of living simpler lives isn’t being heard by our environmental comrades.  They still don’t understand the laws of physics and thermodynamics means renewable energy can’t replace fossil fuels, Hirsch’s DOE paper on why you’d want to prepare at least 10 to 20 years before peak oil production, and above all, the economy can’t continue growing, not even “greenly”.

Richard Heinberg spoke first, and said he didn’t think there was anything to argue about– Climate Change is a serious issue.  But Tom insisted there was a debate, because he believed there were techno-fixes to the Peak Oil problem and we must approach the future with 100% positive and hopeful attitudes.  He simply didn’t believe the scientists wouldn’t come up with something, and therefore he didn’t buy Heinberg’s premise that the first crisis to face us would be peak oil.  A techno-fix turned out to be Tom Athanasiou’s one and only idea.  It’s an economic and political rather than scientific idea, so perhaps another reason Peak Oil is dismissed by some environmentalists is their fear that their issue will be less important,  i.e. peak oil means less greenhouse gas emissions.

Heinberg was brilliant, wise, and thoughtful, and made a good case for peak oil in the very short amount of time he had to speak.  He briefly touched on Jevon’s paradox when the topic of efficiency came up. But since the room was 99% climate change people, I wish he’d been given more time to explain why a techno-fix isn’t going to happen, the scale of what fossil fuels do for us (i.e. cubic mile of oil, and so on.

If Peak Oil and biophysical economics proponents are right, cutting  back on consumption, a much simpler lifestyle, basic gardening and other skills, fixing and re-architecting the existing infrastructure for a lower-energy world, lowering population and immigration, etc., are the only possible paths to less suffering and violent civil unrest, and we’re wasting the little time, money, and energy we have left.

It’s too bad environmental leaders spout impossible dreams of green growth and techno-fixes, but then again, since there are no solutions that allow us to maintain our current lifestyle, perhaps at this late stage it’s not worth trying to convince them.  Throughout history, only one percent or less of people were drawn to living austerely (now known as the “Simplicity movement”).  Gardening, bicycling, walking, traveling and shopping less don’t appeal to most people, no matter how idyllically a “Grandma Moses” portrait is painted.

The best news I heard all night was after the debate, when I had a chance to ask Richard Heinberg the question I’m most interested now.  I asked him if he thought we had enough fossil fuels left to drive humanity and most other species extinct on the planet, and he said that although we probably did, it wasn’t going to happen because of other factors.

He didn’t elaborate on the factors, but from reading his books and blog, I think those factors are economic (depression, companies going out of business, supply chains breaking, sovereign defaults), war, social unrest, and political issues.  In addition, if a long enough period of time goes by when fossil fuel production halts, then you have additional problems of a lack of engineers, and peripheral industries not functioning that are essential to oil, natural gas, and coal mining, i.e. highly refined metal machinery, microprocessors, etc, making it hard to get back to where you left off.

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One Response to Richard Heinberg vs Tom Athanasiou: Peak Oil or Climate Emergency?

  1. Tim Wessels says:

    Richard Heinberg has the big picture, whole systems point of view. He has spent years getting his understanding of the world problematique fully developed and is able to present it in an organized manner. The surprising thing is the foundation thinkers in system dynamics, energy economics and ecology started writing and publishing in the 1970s!!! Fortunately, their books and papers are still available and you can read them. My short list of where to get started includes: The Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows, et al. Evironment, Power and Society by Howard T. Odum. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. World Dynamics by Jay W. Forrester. Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity by William Ophuls. All of these publications were either updated, refined and/or expanded in later publications. I think Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment and the Challenge of the New Millennium by William Ophuls in 1997 has proven to be tremendously predictive of what needs to happen if we are not to be destroyed by our politics, which as Hazel Henderson pointed out decades ago, is nothing more than economics in disguise. Finally, I would recommend either listening to or reading A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright (2005) for a really long view of our tenure on this planet and how we came to be caught in a progress trap of our making. There are others I would add including William Catton, Joseph Tainter, Charles A.S. Hall (student of H.T. Odum) and Jay Hanson.