Saturday, November 20, 2010

Richard Heinberg Notes, 9/16

Richard Heinberg: “Preparing Together for a Changed World”

Richard Heinberg was keynote speaker for November 13’s Transition Towns and Neighborhood Sustainability Fair, sponsored by Alliance for Sustainability, and at South High. Heinberg is a journalist, Senior Fellow at the  Post Carbon Institute, and author of The Party’s Over and other books about scarce oil and its economic consequences.His talk was titled “Preparing Together for a Changed World.”

Heinberg’s a sturdy sixty-year old with spectacles and whispy sandy hair. He spoke for about an hour, with slides of graphs and photos to dramatize his remarks.

2008’s economic crash is ongoing. The housing bubble was four times as big as any previous bubbles, and when it collapsed, $50 trillion dollars disappeared. We’re not in a recovery. Parodying commentators who speculate about the shape of the recovery, Heinberg said we are in an “L-shaped” recovery. “It is up to us to invent a new normal.”

Heinberg said that the total cost of the bailout is $8.5 trillion. I’m sure this number is somehow meaningful, but SourceWatch says government and the Fed together disbursed $4.86 trillion, with a maximum at-risk of $13.86 trillion, and $1.93 trillion outstanding as of September.Sorry to make your eyes glaze, but I wanted to be scrupulous, since I’m with Heinberg.

It’s big money. World War II cost us $3.2 trillion, and Vietnam came in at a bargain $670 billion. To give us perspective, Heinberg included a series of graphics, with a trillion dollars being what looked like a football field coverd by warehouse pallets of bundled hundred dollar bills.

Productivity has increased steadily, with household income keeping pace until 1975. Since then productivity has nearly doubled, but household income has remained flat. We’ve increased household debt since then, but we’re about maxed out, and people can’t buy stuff if they don’t have money. Heinberg quoted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, that the economy is resetting to a lower level of spending and consuming.

Economic theory depends on the belief that the economy will grow. Heinberg had a number of graphs illustrating spending and consumption, all of which were J-shaped. Until the mid or late nineteenth century everything sloped up gradually. Then every trend Heinberg graphed spiked. This is when we invented our economic theories, assuming that the volcano of wealth would continue. Compund interest, fractional reserve banking, and debt leverage require growth for monetary health.

We built a growth economy because of easy energy. In 1850, 65% of work was done by animals, 15% by people, and 20% by fuel. The first oil well, near Titusville, PA, was drilled in 1856. After 1865, human and animal work began to be replaced by fuel. Since 1970, virtually all work is done by fuel.

Heinberg referenced Shell geologist, and MIT and UCLA professor, M. K. Hubbert, who predicted peaks and decline in oil discovery and production for the United States and the world. So far, Hubbert has proved prescient. The US has already seen both peaks, and the world saw a discovery peak in 1964, with the production peak probably now, give or take five years.

We pumped the easiest oil first. Heinberg illustrated this with side-by-side photos of a nineteenth century oil well, looking like a set for Gunsmoke, and a deep water oil platform. Deep water oil and tar sand oil are marginal sources, it takes large fractions of the energy they yield to go get them.

Charles Schlumberger, the World Bank’s principal air transport specialist believes there will be a gradual disappearance of commercial aviation. No more body scans. Peak oil means peak food, because agriculture now has a seven-to-one calorie ratio: seven calories inot the tractor, semi, etc., and one into your mouth.

Conventional wisdom has it that when the price of oil makes it unavailable, a competitor will replace it. We are “searching for a miracle.” There is no credible alternative energy scenario that makes up for a loss of fossil fuels. We have choices between planning the life we want post-oil and responding to crisis. Either scenario can be top-down from government, or bottom up grass-roots organizing. How do the grass roots design post-oil life? Conservation and activism; envision 2050, then “backcast” the way to get there. We need to shoot for a mix of fuels that can continue and a partly (which parts?) de-industrialized economy for 2075. “We need to be driven by vision, not crisis.”

Our communities need resilience:

    * Redundancy in critical systems;
    * Dispersed system control points;
    * Dispersed inventories;
    * Balanced feedback loops;

Co-operative power: “Neighborhoods can afford what individuals can’t;”


Cellphone- and GPS-facilitated ride-sharing;

Local food processing;

Organized squatting: some way of getting people and businesses into idle buildings;

Behavior change away from cheapest and fastest;

Neighborhood watches;

Bicycle transport;

Community currencies;

Transition towns, the movement of which Corcoran GROWS is part;

Community economic laboratories: One-stop for car share, food co-op, credit union, job center, free clinic, etc.

We need to emphasize what is positive, community, satisfaction from honest work, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, artistry, and beauty in the built environment. We need to reduce spending and consumption, grow our own food, get to know our neighbors, and imagine the best-case scenario. This crisis is our opportunity.

After Richard Heinberg’s presentation, there were break-out sessions about transition towns, solar heat and power, electric vehicles, how to enjoy more and spend less, local food, and more, including youth groups. Late in the afternoon, we met with people from our neighborhoods.

I chose local food because of our household almond business. It was useful because Community Table Coperative was soliciting ideas from local food processors, and I got to brainstorm about how that organization could help us thrive. There was a hazel nut grower from Lake City in my group, and it was good to exchange names with him, since we’ve talked about baking local hazels in addition to California almonds.

The neighborhood session was less immediately profitable, but sitting down and sharing ideas about what we’d like to see in Corcoran forty years from now was fun. I think we made progress.

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