Richard Heinberg says conflict, non-growth will be the result of APEC’s agenda

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Are you listening? That’s the question Richard Heinberg appears to be asking his readers. The author of 10 books, speaker, and a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute is in Honolulu,  where he spoke to an audience at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Saturday night and on Friday at the Moana Nui conference, a counter to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Moana Nui was a gathering place for Pacific peoples who believe that their way of sustainability in community, managing natural resources, and preserving cultural practices have been ignored by APEC.

Heinberg’s latest book is The End of Growth. In considering the implications and transition following the end of global economic expansion, Heinberg lays out the case why we need to stop believing innovation, substitution, and increased efficiency will save us. He spells out why we can’t continue to consume at the present rate while expecting “real, aggregate, and averaged growth.” That, he says, is essentially finished despite some relative or residual GDP growth in certain regions or nations, including Asia and especially China.

While this may seem counter-intuitive given the rate and scope of China’s expanding economy, he asks a basic question: “Will China escape the economic fate of older industrial nations, or is it poised for its own encounter with growth limits?”

Perhaps more pointedly, the underlying question is what the scenario will mean for the rest of the globe. A world in which geopolitical positioning of rich and poor countries jockeying for control, or at least access to diminishing natural resources, has the undeniable potential for international conflict.

Nevertheless, Heinberg’s motivation seems less to scare than to challenge readers with the notion that a high quality of life is possible even if it isn’t tantamount to the lifestyle many currently enjoy. For those in the top tier, that message may be less compelling than for those whose wallets will more immediately feel the impact of escalating oil prices—especially while transitioning to alternative energy and closer-to-home food sources. For Hawaii residents, that also translates into higher food prices, at least in the short term, to account for higher transportation costs to bring in the 80 to 90 percent of food and other goods we import.

But we’ve heard all this before, haven’t we?

Heinberg makes the same case, albeit on a global scale, that local organizations such as Kanu Hawaii have advanced for keeping farmland, resisting the urge to urbanize even as developers promise much needed jobs, as well as shifting habits to create a more sustainable way of life.

Still, many anecdotally see the argument as a trendy phase on the way back to normalcy. Heinberg says those folks will wait indefinitely; the recovery will not happen, in fact, as many would have it in fantasy. The new reality may have to smack most people in the face for substantive change to happen.

“Unfortunately, it’s a likely scenario that everyone will wait until oil prices skyrocket,” Heinberg says. “At that point, the economy will be in tatters anyway, so it will be very difficult to adapt in any kind of rational way.”

The far-from-comforting future he sees still has the potential for a satisfying way of life, and the sooner we collectively move toward it the better. Heinberg asserts that the inteligent thing to do is preadapt. He also says the signals are very clear as to why we need to do it now.

The International Energy Agency, a cooperation of 28 countries, has just released its world energy outlook for this year. According to Heinberg, “it couldn’t be painting a clearer picture of increasing oil prices, tightening supply, and declining net oil exports available to countries like the United States.”

Oil exporting countries, Heinberg says, are using more of their own oil domestically, so the signs have been here for some time and have been growing sharper by the year. “But the price signal isn’t quite there yet,” he explains. “Even with oil at $100 a barrel, a lot of policy makers are still clinging to policies that made sense a decade ago when oil was much cheaper.”

There have been five great societal turnings. And as Heinberg says late in the book: “There is no guarantee that the participants in this evolutionary and revolutionary transformation will view it as an extension of human progress, rather than as the ending of civilization as we have known it. Unless we completely fail to rise to the occasion, in which case the human project will simply cease, there will probably be elements of both collapse and renewal.”

Although Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute have been trying to deseminate their message as widely and quickly as possible, Heinberg knows he has a small audience among policy makers. Some changes in policy have happened, he says, “but most people listening to us are the five percent who are literate and aware and watching these signals appear on the horizon and willing to get out ahead of the masses.”

Heinberg believes that equal to the strength of his message is the importance of the contingent of opinion shapers in every community—the relatively small segment of society required to lead shift in conscious lifestyle choices. As to how he assesses Hawaii, Heinberg says he was “first struck by the starkness of the challenge. This state gets roughly 90 percent of its electricity from oil and has enormous vulnerability given the fact that so much of its economy rests on tourism, and that 85 percent of food is imported.”

His assessment began to soften following meetings with farmers who are proponents of alternative energy, especially solar and geothermal. The huge potential he sees in Hawaii will amount to little unless it’s accessed ... and fast.

“It’s a matter of connecting those opportunities with the reality,” Heinberg says.

Perhaps the toughest thing to admit is that, all the fancy promises of big companies and government aside, we are each going to have to relearn what our great grandparents knew: There is pride in self-sufficiency and living in balance with personal, national, and global resources.

“History suggests that it’s hard to understand and deliberately navigate one of these great turnings as it is happening,” Heinberg writes.

In the most remote spot from anywhere on Earth, many of us say we do comprehend the bigger picture and know that it goes beyond a run on rice or toilet paper. The question we need to repeatedly ask each other: What changes are you making?