Read: “Beyond the Limits to Growth”

17 Aug 2010

Richard Heinberg has a knack for plainly stating our current predicament, when it comes to energy use, unsustainability, and, in general, our collective fantasy that we live in an infinite world in which we can go on consuming and reproducing forever.

“We are living today at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history,” he writes in a chapter of the upcoming book The Post Carbon Reader.

I think people at many times have imagined that they live in a time when things have never been better—or, depending on their temperament or where they lived, in a time of dissolution, when there was a golden age in the past. Either way, many people feel that they live in a time that’s special. Looking back in history, we can read about all these people talking about how great (or how horrible) their situation is, and think it’s quaint that they thought their time was special, while progress went marching on.

People who dismiss worries about peak oil, the end of economic growth, or the collapse of civilization, seem to have this kind of attitude. “It’s so quaint to imagine that we’re somehow special.”

But, on the other hand, many empires have fallen. Arguably, they all have. Why should we think the dominant American-European model, which is arguably an empire, would be immune to that?

I think Heinberg’s right: Now really is special. We can talk about peak oil, but also about “peak stuff”—our kids and grandkids will most likely have less stuff than we do. That’s not all bad. But I just hope that we don’t also lose many of the good things about our civilization: scientific knowledge and thinking, some measure of tolerance, and so on.

You can download Heinberg’s introductory chapter (freely and legally) from the Post Carbon Institute, along with several other chapters from The Post Carbon Reader.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »