Last month doyen of the Peak Oil movement Richard Heinberg had a piece in the Guardian called Life after the End of Economic Growth..
I first came across Heinberg in the cult peak-oil classic documentary The End of Suburbia and then went on to read some of his books, starting with his 2003 The Party’s Over.
Heinberg’s basic argument is that we are at a turning point of history: the rapid development of industrial civilization over the past 200 years has been possible largely because of the extraction and combustion of easily available fossil fuels, primarily oil, which has facilitated the rapid expansion of populations, cities and a consumer-oriented middle-class. With the peaking of world oil production imminent, approximating the “half-way stage” in oil consumption- this period is now coming to an end. In the future, energy will be more expensive, and we could be looking at rapid economic contraction, or even collapse, as the gains of the modern era are swept away by resource constraints, leading to rationing and possibly even international conflicts over the last drops of the unique and precious energy-dense black liquid we all have come to depend on so much.
in recent years a few economists have advanced a contrary view. Tim Jackson in the UK, Herman Daly in the US, and Serge Latouche in France have argued that growth is not always good for the environment or for the real health of communities, and that GDP growth is impossible to sustain over the long run anyway because we live on a planet with limited natural resources.
As recession in Europe takes hold and there is no clear resolution of the credit crunch, Heinberg’s is a compelling narrative that appeals to the post-modernists who see the modern world as the source of our problems, rather than the solution to them; but there are many grounds on which it can be questioned.
Firstly, the economic contraction we are now experiencing is not (yet) as bad as previous ones from which we have emerged, such as the great Depression, and appears to be largely a result of political factors, lack of financial regulation, criminal activity even in some quarters, and does not necessarily vindicate the messianic narrative of the End of the World. It is far from clear that the financial collapse we are experiencing is a result of breaching fundamental ecological limits.
Secondly, Heinberg’s conception of what creates growth is simplistic and undefined: he assumes in this article as elsewhere that growth is just a question of digging holes in the ground and extracting the goodies until they are all gone. Thus, oil is seen as being lakes of black liquid that we pump out until the pressure drops so much it takes more energy to pump than is returned by the actual oil.
While this is no doubt part of the story, peak oilers tend to dismiss the role of technology. In The End of Suburbia peak oil pundit and doomer Howard Kunstler emphasizes the point that “technology will not save us”- because technology is not a substitute for non-renewable raw materials. While this is true in a literal sense, it may not be that relevant: humans have always been surrounded by resources, but it is only as we develop the technology to exploit them that they become available. In this sense, technology is everything: the oil has after all always been there, sitting placidly in the ground, for the whole of human history, untouched for millennium and silent witness to the rise and fall of successive civilisations.
It was only once we had developed the technology to drill for it that it became available. Even if all the world’s oil had just sat in open lakes for us to dredge with buckets, it is unlikely to have spawned what we think of as the modern world without us having first developed mathematics, chemistry and knowledge of the periodic table, and much more, before we could use it for plastics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides or even for running the internal combustion engine.
The view of the “cornucopians” is in direct opposition to the peak-oilers for this reason: they see the earth as being replete with minerals and resources which can be exploited, not literally forever, but at least for many more centuries, as technology develops. Thus, the exploitation of shale oil, tar sands and other forms of “non-conventional” oil has recently lead to a surge in oil production from North America which could even surpass the early peak of the early 1970s and see the US return to its historical position as the world’s no. 1 oil producing country, albeit at much higher prices.
All this is only possible because of new technology: the technology does not of course literally create the resource, but for all practical purposes as regards growth and the economy, making resources available that otherwise were not amounts to the same thing- and could push back “peak energy” for a long time, if not in fact indefinitely.
A more dramatic example of this still is shale gas, a technology which, although known about for decades, has only become economically viable in the last ten years or so, thus transforming the world’s energy profile, especially in the US where it now provides as much as 30% of America’s gas:
In The Party’s Over Heinberg opines “it is enough to merely point out that North American production of natural gas may be peaking by the time this book is printed.”- shale gas is not mentioned in the book at all. Yet with proven reserves of natural gas in the US already well above what they they were at the end of the 1970s you might think Heinberg and other peak-oilers would have learned the cautionary lesson that predicting the future in the energy world is at best a hazardous occupation.
Then there is nuclear, also with vastly improved technology, which, political and ideological objections notwithstanding, is also likely to play an important role in pushing back the date of Peak Energy far into the distant future.
Another issue is that growth can also come from efficiency gains at use- improved mileage in motor vehicles could cut oil use in transport, and thus free up the black stuff for higher-value uses in medicine or materials- thus promoting more growth without in principle needing any more resources, or even permitting a decline in resource use for greater benefit.
Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist, points out that historically two of the main drivers of growth in addition to raw materials and technology, has been specialization and trade: the principles of competitive advantage. Thus, growth could continue even without more resource consumption for these reasons also- the more we specialize, the greater the advantage all round, as one person or industry becomes marginally more productive at a given task for whatever reason, and is thus able to supply the world with niche products at a slightly lower price.
While it is indeed a difficult position to argue in the worst recession of a generation that growth may not be over, while Europe and the West struggles, the emerging economies continue to grow apace, and the likelihood is it seems to me that the West will indeed return to growth after some years of hardship. The end of growth would mean the end of technological progress, and that is simply not in anyway credible.
More than that, there are reasons to question the ideological underpinnings of the peak oil movement and Heinberg’s own perspective: growth is seen to be undesirable. Heinberg writes:
Still, over the longer term there will undoubtedly be life after growth, and it doesn’t have to play out under miserable conditions. With less energy to fuel globalisation and mechanisation there should be increasing requirement for local production and manual labour.
This is a recipe for returning to the 80s, and then progressively, to the 50s and the 30s, and even further back: and for many this will of course mean a return to miserable conditions. The life of the peasant laborer, confined to the fields and proscribed social roles for their lifetimes, is no fun. Much of the world has not yet benefited from the growth we have seen in the west, and romantic notions of returning to local economies- thus losing the competitive advantages of specialization and trade- and the joys of manual labour, when most people who currently live like this tend to be amongst the poorest in the world, smacks of complacency if not hypocrisy.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel. If we focus on improving quality of life rather than boosting quantity of consumption, we could be happier even as our economy downsizes to fit nature’s limits.
This betrays I think his romantic ideology. We are in fact unlikely to be happier if we become poorer.
I just had this very conversation with a neighbor who happened to drop in just as I was writing the last sentence: he is expecting the Eurozone crisis to deepen and thinks that if it all collapses,we will at least have time for each other more, we will see a resurgence in the local community and people will get together to help each other out. He reminded me that when he arrived here in West Cork in the 1980s, he chose to live as people had done in the 1950s, rather than pursue the path of growth and materialism.
I had to remind him of one key difference: in the 1980s he, and many others like him who came here seeking a simpler life (including myself some time later) had the dole, a product of the very growth that we were all running away from. In the 1950s, life was genuinely much harder here, and there was little other choice but emigration. We really do not want to go back to that.
Heinberg has more than a touch of Malthussianism in him- he once showed a slide at a conference I attended asking if humans were more intelligent than yeast in a petri dish, since we apparently are unaware of “nature’s limits” that he refers to. In this much, Heinberg repeats the same mistake that environmentalists have always made: they assume that humans are subject to the same limits as the rest of nature, and ignore the role of technology because they are suspicious of it, they regard it as an evil. Behind this assumption is a moralistic position that humans are bad, that growth- the way in which we improve our circumstances- is also bad.
Heinberg doesn’t just believe this is the end of growth- he wants it to be the end. In this, I believe he is premature, and for this reason, we should be sceptical of his conclusions.