FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Richard Heinberg

As oil prices skyrocket, and also natural gas prices especially here in North America and Great Britain and a few other countries, there's going to be panic response, almost certainly. And if we aren't able to come up with something like a global oil depletion protocol, then I think the overwhelming likelihood is global economic chaos, eventually leading to what I think will be seen in retrospect as the collapse of industrial civilization.

Now collapse is a scary word, because if you look back through history, collapses of complex societies, which have happened every time we've had a complex society, just about, have been pretty messy, and many people have died. However, it's usually not the end of the world. Typically, complex societies dissolve into smaller units. Society continues, but at a lower level of complexity, essentially.

I think we're likely to see something like that occur in the world as oil depletion really hits home. And some people, I think, are inevitably going to approach this with a kind of survivalist mentality, trying to save themselves and their families, which I don't think is likely to be very effective. Because if you're growing your food, and you have your nice little house in the country, but your neighbours are starving; well, even if you have a gun, you have to sleep sometime. So the prospects are not good.

Ultimately, I think that the best survival strategy is going to be a community survival strategy, in which communities take it upon themselves to re-learn all of the skills that we had in pre-industrial times that enabled people to survive, and then teach those skills to people around them. So that it's not a matter of, we'll get ours and survive while everybody else dies, but we'll help everyone around us also to survive and thrive, so that they can then continue the process and teach those skills to people even further on out.

I've been fascinated by the human condition for a long time, and tried to understand how the world came to be the way it is. I mean, obviously, we're undermining our own ecological viability. Why would this be? Why would a society go so far out on an ecological limb, as to be actually undermining not only its own survival, but that of the rest of the biosphere at the same time?

We're an intelligent species that is able to use tools, and we have language, so we can our ideas over time and generations, and we're energy junkies, just like every other species. So we gradually, over the centuries and millennia, found ways of increasing our ability to harvest energy from the environment, and thereby build social complexity, and increase of share of the takings from the environment.

Agriculture, the domestication of animals, the building of cities, all of these were stages in the process. And then, with fossil fuels, we hit the jackpot. I mean, we've acquired energy sources that far outstrip anything we could have imagined in previous times.

Every previous agricultural civilization had to have 85-90% of the population working at producing food, so that you could produce just a little bit of surplus that would enable the rest of the social structure, the full-time specialists in violence -- the soldiers, the accountants, the priests, the managerial class -- to survive on top of the social pyramid.

But with fossil fuels, you only have to have 2% of the population producing the food for everybody else, so you have this explosion of the middle class, and planes, trains, and automobiles, and inventions, and everything we associate with modern life. All of this has come about because of fossil fuels.

So once I understood that this is what's been happening, then the question was, okay, when do we run out? And of course, the answer to that is very disturbing, because it's not really a matter of when we run out, but when we're no longer able to continue the path of growth, when we're no longer able to have more fossil fuels with every passing year to fuel more shopping malls, more cars, more highways. And that time is basically now.

Well, I think that there's a lot of our culture that's likely not to survive. All of our powered machinery is definitely vulnerable, and most of our information storage media are vulnerable. Electronic media of all kinds, everything from laserdiscs to computer memories. And then most of our paper is acid-soaked and has a lifetime of a century or two, probably.

So there's a strong likelihood, actually, that unless we make some effort to preserve the information we've developed and built painstakingly over the last few centuries, it could all pretty much just disappear over the course of just a few generations. I think that would be a real shame. Because we have, along with all of the crazy things we've done, along with building WalMarts and superhighways and space shuttles, and all of that, we've also done some useful things.

We've figured out how nature works, in considerable detail. we figured out what DNA is, and how ecologies work, and ecosystems. We know how the human body works, to a pretty large degree. We know how evolution proceeded. We've decoded the past. We have some sense of what's happened over the last several thousand years, human history, the story of how we got here. And all of this is, I think, useful information to have. And if it were all swept away, I think we'd be very poor, much poorer, because of it.

Also, we've made a lot of beautiful art, along with all of the ugly stuff we've done, all of the advertising art, and the ugly steel and glass buildings. We've also built some beautiful things, and written some beautiful music, and created some lovely musical instruments, and so on. I would be a real shame to see all that fall by the wayside. But I think we'll have to make some deliberate effort to preserve those things. Because, if we don't, they will fall away. That's what happens when civilizations collapse.

And when previous civilizations have collapsed, there have been people who have made those efforts to preserve. That's what happened with the Mayan civilization, after all. Mayan civilization collapsed, but Mayan culture still exists. And much of that culture had to be preserved, painstakingly. When the Roman civilization collapsed, the monks of medieval Europe, and particularly in Ireland, had to make the effort to copy those manuscripts, and remember how things were done, the tools and technologies that have been developed.

Another thing that we desperately need to preserve is seeds. Right now there's a tremendous consolidation of the commercial seed industry, and of course, the genetic engineering of food plants. If we don't make the effort, within even 2 or 3 decades, I think that the variety of food plants available to human beings could be reduceed dramatically by up to 90%.

I think societies are likely to respond to Peak Oil in basically one of four ways. The first one I call 'Last One Standing.' And that's, I think, the default mode. That's the path we're on right now, which is basically, fighting over what's left. As oil becomes more scarce, standard human response will be to contest over the remaining supplies. And of course, that leads nowhere. Nobody will win the last oil war, because we'll destroy the very thing we're fighting over in the process of fighting over it.

The second path, which is a pretty common-sensical one, is what I call 'Power Down.' It's using less. It's scaling back society, so that our per capita consumption of non-renewable resources is diminished substantially. So that gradually, we reduce the scale of the human project until we're within the long-term carrying capacity of the planet, for human beings. Because we're way outside that right now, we're in overshoot territory, in ecological terms.

So if we're going to survive much longer, and do it in a coordinated, cooperative way, we're going to have to scale down considerably. That's a tough sell, though, because we're in an industrial growth economy, and we have advertising that's convinced us all that we deserve to have more, and it's out there for us to have. So we have to change those cultural messages. A successful power down is not going to happen unless we really change our whole cultural story, and engage in mass consciousness shift.

That's a big process. I think there's a strong tendency, therefore, to take a third path, which is the path of 'Delusion and Denial.' Well, if we're going to run out of oil, well, we'll just substitute something else. We'll all run our cars on vegetable oil, or we'll dig a bunch of coal out of the ground, and turn that into a substitute synthetic fuel for our cars, or whatever, methane hydrates. There are all kinds of things we could do.

Now, in fact, if you start examining all of those closely, none of them can actually make up for what we're doing with oil right now. And even if some of them theoretically could, eventually, if we put enough investment into them, and so on, it would take time, and it would take, literally, trillions of dollars of investment, to build up the scale of the flow of these alternative fuels and energy sources. It's not going to happen.

But the danger is that we would convince ourselves that, sure, that's the way it will happen, until we get to the point where we've wasted all the time that we might have used in preparation, in transition, that we have to choice, but to take path number one, 'Last One Standing,' just fight over what's left. Again, I think that's a likely path, it's an easy path, especially if you're a politician or a policy maker, because you don't actually have to do anything, all you have to do is listen to the people around you who are saying, Don't worry, there's always something else, the market will take care of it, whatever.

The fourth path is, if 'Power Down' doesn't work, or it's not even seriously tried, and if we do go the path of 'Last One Standing' and 'Delusion and Denial,' what will happen, most likely, is the collapse of industrial civilization. And if that is the likely outcome, then we should be putting some effort into building lifeboats. So this fourth path is what I call 'Lifeboat Building,' and it means creating communities of support and communities of service.

So that there are not just survivalist communities, but there are communities preserving knowledge, information, skills, seeds, and then teaching skills to people outside the community. So that that knowledge is being disseminated, preserved, spread, and that way the outside community will not break down the doors of these smaller preservationist communities to get what they have, but will instead support them. Because these are the most important people in our community, because they have the skills, they have the knowledge that can help us to survive, too.

And if we do that, if we go down that road, I think maybe in a few generations, we could see a very different world, much more locally organized world, with people living at a much slower pace and smaller scale, but perhaps very survivably and very happily.

America's housing infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to the problem of Peak Oil. Not only have we created a settlement pattern, namely suburbia, that's entirely dependent on the automobile. But also, we've built millions of houses that have to be heated with fossil fuels. Mostly natural gas, also fuel oil in the Northeast, and natural gas is going to be in just as short supply, perhaps even shorter supply than oil in the years ahead, in North America. We're approaching a real natural gas crisis.

So how are we going to heat all of these houses? Most of us are living in places that get really cold in the winter. I mean, you really can freeze to death in places like Iowa, and Minnesota, and upper New York state. So, we're going to have to figure out an alternative to the standard American house, and do it really quickly. We're going to have to retrofit an awful lot of houses, but mainly, we just have to stop building these things, and come up with a completely different solution for how human beings should live.