308. REVIEW OF "POWERDOWN" BY RICHARD HEINBERG
So, would anyone care to describe the so-called "powerdown" option in enough detail that one could get a sense for what's proposed? I've asked the 'downers on the PO site, but they all just point me to the bible of the 'downer movement, Richard Heinberg's book Powerdown. I've now read it, and I still don't get it. Not only did I not learn anything new about the PO problem, I still couldn't tell you what the powerdown option actually means.
In the introduction, Heinberg sets up the problem, trotting out the familiar four horsemen of PO apocalypse: overpopulation, resource depletion, environmental destruction, and the current political and economic system. His description of industrial society as a rickety raft in imminent danger of sinking is amusing. "Miraculously, seconds go by and it is still afloat,", he says, followed by "A minute goes by and still the damned thing is afloat.", and finally "...every one of your predictions about the fate of the raft has been disconfirmed...there must be some mystical power keeping the raft afloat..." One gets the impression of a man who hates the technological society that spawned and sustains him, and is frustrated by the fact that reality refuses to confirm his belief that it should end in calamity.
Chapter one does a decent job of laying out the magnitude of the energy problem we now face in keeping the raft of civilization from sinking, but rushes over important energy alternatives inconvenient to his thesis. Perhaps these are discussed at greater length in his prior book. Of coal, he says "If we rely on coal to make up shortfalls from other fossil fuels, extraction rates will peak within decades." Decades of coal-derived energy sound to me like decades in which to develop non-fossil energy alternatives, hardly an imminent collapse of society. "Nuclear power is dogged by the unsolved problem of radioactive waste disposal, as well as fears..." So, what, we're going to throw in the towel on civilization because we can't overcome interminable legal hurdles to proper waste disposal and fear-mongering from anti-nuclear advocacy groups? "...the necessary uranium would run out within just a few decades." Ignoring breeder reactors, a technology we've already developed, as well as resources that would become economic at higher uranium prices. France gets 75% of her electricty from nuclear reactors, a pretty good existence proof that the problems dogging nukes aren't technical in nature.
Chapter two, "Last One Standing", is largely a 30-page paranoic rant about the administration of George W. Bush, complete with unsupported allusions to 9/11 conspiracy theories. The point of this bilious assessment of recent events is that US leaders are plotting to fight wars over the remaining oil resources. But wars are incredibly wasteful of resources, especially energy, and certainly won't make more oil resources available. And an all-out war over oil resources with China would like lead to a nuclear exchange that would spell the end of both countries, a fact that surely wouldn't escape even the most dimwitted of current world leaders. In the last chapter Heinberg writes "Even the nation that wins the game will be utterly devastated...and not even the wealthy will be able to maintain their current way of life...Why would anyone choose this path?". Couldn't have said it better myself. A far more likely explanation of events in the middle east is that the US is seeking to ensure an orderly market in the world's dwindling oil resources by instilling fear of US military action in the hearts of the despots that now control those resources, and might be inclined to use the "oil weapon" at this critical time in history. Or there is Paul Robert's contention, in his book The End of Oil, that the US is trying to open up Iraq to exploration and production by western oil companies, all of whom have run out of ways to replace their reserves. Like most people in the US, I'm looking forward to the end of GWB's presidency in 2008, but to suggest that we're looking at the opening salvo in a shooting war for oil is a stretch.
Chapter three was as noted the biggest disappointment to me. It was here that I expected to see the cooperative, powerdown option laid out before me. Yet the reader gets no more than disjointed glimpses. Heinberg describes the Kyoto protocol on climate-change and reprints the Uppsla protocol for managing down oil consumption advocated by the ASPO. He lists the 7 recommendations from the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth (LTG), most of which are completely reasonable and none of which require that industrial civilization end. He briefly rails against the evils of the debt-based fiat money system without explaining the terms, and asserts as self-evident that the system has lead to the problems of population growth and oil depletion. He appears to gravely misunderstand the fundamentals of economics and money when he suggests that all the ills of the system could be cured by having countries issue their own debt-free money. While he argues that economic growth is inconsistent with limitations on resource usage, the data he provided in chapter one refutes this because since the 1970s the world experienced smaller but positive economic grown even in the face of declining per-capita energy use. He takes some shots at globalization without defining what he really means by "re-localization". Finally, he give both Cuba and the Indian province of Kerala as instructive with regard to the likely shape of a powerdown, but admits that neither of these will match what will be faced by modern industrial nations. Readers are left to imagine a powered-down version of their country as either utopian or apocalyptic. Are major metropolitan areas of the US decaying ruins long abandoned by people who've gone back to an agrarian lifestyle? Or dense hives of humanity packed with former suburbanites who've moved closer to work and/or have fled from reclaimation of their land for agriculture? Heinberg doesn't say. Does the powered-down civilization still have high-tech healthcare? Electricity and running water? Modern sanitation? Or has it reverted to a pre-industrial level of technology that will never advance further? Re-localization doubtless means US citizens can no longer obtain mass-produced shoes from China, but are they then buying mass-produced American shoes, or hand-made shoes from the village cobbler? (The assertion that re-localization will be required isn't supported with any numbers. Long-distance transport of goods by ship is incredibly efficient. As oil resources dwindle, one might expect lower-value goods to become too costly to ship, but high-value goods might nevertheless still be more efficiently manufactured in centralized locations and transported around the world. Oil itself is of quite low value in relation to its mass, worth about 25 cents a pound - as long as any world market exists for oil, I would expect a market for higher-value goods to continue to exist as well.) Worst of all is that Heinberg doesn't tackle the population problem that he believes is at the heart of the sustainability problem. In the last chapter he says "By any reasonable assessment, the Earth has already exceeded its carrying capacity for humans...the drawdown of fossil fuels temporarily enabled us to...create phantom carrying capacity." Exactly how far does the population have to drop to provide the liebensraum needed by the survivors? Although Heinberg criticizes environmental organizations for timidity on this subject, he, too, avoids giving a number or timetable. (PO 'downers cite other sources that put the figure at 2 billion souls - reaching that target from the current 6.5 billion within this century is the stuff of sci-fi nightmares.)
Chapter four, "Waiting for the Magic Elixr", invites the reader to skip it, as it's clear what the author thinks of alternatives to oil just from the subtitle, "False Hopes, Wishful Thinking, and Denial". Indeed, a common 'downer response to initiating any discussion of energy alternatives is the assertion that the proposer is "in denial". Apparently they haven't read past the title, for the chapter is interesting both for what it discusses and what it does not. What it does not discuss at any length are two obvious near-term sources of energy to replace oil, coal and nuclear power. Instead, these are both buried in a short discussion of hydrogen, well-known by most PO-aware people as an energy carrier but not a resource. Of these important energy sources, Heinberg simply asserts that by using them to produce hydrogen they cannot meet America's transportation needs, and that both sources produce wastes (which, I suppose, Heinberg thinks are worse than the consequences of powerdown). He gives plenty of space to methane hydrates, a highly speculative possible source of vast amounts of fossil energy. He even mentions unnamed (and thermodynamically impossible) sources of "free energy". The overall effect is to give the reader the feeling that all of the alternatives must be equally untenable. Heinberg barely discusses renewable energy sources, since the chapter on powerdown appears to count them as part of the solution. That's good, because wind turbines are, like coal and nuclear power, an obvious next step after oil. He mentions efficiency improvements as a strategy likely to be at least partially effective, again, apparently included in the powerdown option. Heinberg has in effect classified energy sources and efficiency measures he likes as part of the powerdown solution, while ones he does not like as magic elixrs. Finally, several pages of this chapter are devoted to the strawman that even with an unlimited energy source, humans would ultimately have to curb growth because of Leibig's Law of the Minimum, the idea that the resource in shortest supply will limit growth in a species' population. Heinberg invites people to confuse economic growth with population growth and increasing resource consumption, yet as Heinberg himself notes elsewhere most of the population pressure is coming from under-developed nations. Most industrialized nations, including the US, would have below-replacement population growth were it not for immigration. If an unlimited energy source were to become available and were used to lift under-developed nations to US levels, experience to date suggests that the population would rapidly level off. Still Heinberg persists, asserting that once the hypothetical new energy source was saturated, a turn towards resource wars would be inevitable anyway, and thus even a successful switch to alternative energy ends up following the resource-war trajectory. How fortunate for those of us reading this today that this same line of reasoning wasn't used when wood, whale oil, and coal appeared to proscribe the limits of human achievement. There is no question in my mind that there is an urgent need to curb human population growth, so as to keep the demands on energy alternatives as low as possible. But Heinberg simply hasn't proven that the current population level cannot be sustained over centuries with sufficient sources of energy, in other words, a combination of both powerdown ideas and ideas that Heinberg would doubtless consider "magic elixirs".
Chapter five, "Building Lifeboats", is a green light for people looking for an excuse to become the new survivalists. I won't rehash it here, since it's not terribly detailed. (The sidebar on people attempting to relearn stone-age technologies provides dark amusement.) About the only thing I found illuminating in this chapter was the description of the Amish, which perhaps hints at the lifestyle Heinberg would have us adopt. And yet, Heinberg notes that Amish families typically have large numbers of children, something that has historically been common to agrarian societies. He does his best to square this with the urgency of population reduction, but I found it unconvincing. I found encouraging the statistic that the yields of sustainable Amish farming practices are 50-75% of mechanized agriculture, which gives me hope that a turn away from current practices (one of the LTG recommendations I agree with) won't necessarily spell starvation for us (because, at least in the US, we produce far more food calories than we actually need to have excellent nutrition). Heinberg doesn't explain how the lifeboat communities are going to avoid destruction by rampaging hordes of well-armed, starving, ex-urban thugs in a "Mad-Max" world. If anything, human history suggests that eventually feudalism would return.
The last chapter casts the current situation as a struggle between the Elites, who've opted for resource wars, and the Movement, an alliance of environmental, anti-war, anti-globalization, and human rights organizations. The chapter is a call to action, to push the elites towards the powerdown option while building lifeboats as "plan B". Although generally sympathetic to their aims, his biggest criticism of members of the movement is their lack of frankness on population issues. (I'm also generally sympathetic to environmental causes - my biggest criticism is that they've successfully and unthinkingly blocked nuclear power in the US, leaving us dependent on fossil resources decades past the point where we should have weaned ourselves from them.) It is here that he attempts to explain the apparently irrational behavior of the elites as having been selected for by the capitalist political system. Indeed, it's hard to argue that our present system has not yielded a great number of political leaders unable to look beyond the next election cycle, and business leaders unwilling to look past the next quarter's results. Still, it's a huge leap to assert that they've lost the capacity for long-term planning, at least in their personal lives. Most of these leaders are healthy people in their 40s, 50s, and early 60s, who will live to see the consequences of their strategies played out during the early part of this century. Almost all have children and grandchildren whose futures they would certainly care about. The obvious infeasibility of resource wars will rule them out as a deliberate choice even of the elites. It is more likely that they honestly think the raft not as shaky as Heinberg believes, and that real solutions to our problems that preserve industrial civilization await only the will to execute them. I hope they're right, because it won't be much fun to break the raft up into a few strong logs, and allow everyone that can't fit onto them to drown.
-- by Doctor Doom