BOOKS/Danila B. Oder

Unpleasant Truths

Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World

By Richard Heinberg

New Society Publishers, 2004


"When engaging in public discourse it is permissible to say, 'If we don't do this or so, terrible things will happen.' ... But even if the prescribed action is not being taken, and the world is in fact headed at top speed in the opposite direction, it is unacceptable to assume that the foreseen consequences will in fact appear, and to make plans accordingly." -- Powerdown, p. 164.

"I take it as a given that we have already overshot Earth's long-term carrying capacity for humans -- and have drawn down essential resources -- to such an extent that some form of societal collapse is now inevitable." -- Powerdown, page 10.

When I was an older kid, I really, really wanted someone to tell me the truth about the adult world. Not the fragmentary reports in the daily press or the pronouncements from our designated leaders. I wanted to know the deep structure, the real ideologies that made for crazy policies like running automobiles in the only atmosphere humans will ever live in.

Heinberg is one of the rare truthtellers, and however dismayed I felt after reading Powerdown, still my heart was lifted. Powerdown will likely be ignored by the mass media, but it will remain a touchstone for activists and thinkers in the troubled decades to come.

A sequel to Heinberg's superb 2003 The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Powerdown sketches four scenarios and actions for the collapse of civilization as the world runs out of oil and the climate changes. The scenarios are descriptions of processes, or directions, rather than imagined, humanized scenes. My one criticism of this provocative and unforgettable book is that it's not graphic or scary enough: It does not provide enough detail for the uninformed reader to imagine how these scenarios will concretely play out.

Heinberg regretfully acknowledges that the worst-case scenario, "Last One Standing," is also the default scenario. It entails resource-grabbing wars, increased political chaos and climate devastation worldwide. The US is on a collision course with China if either country tries to maintain its economy on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, politicians would rather demonize opponents in places like Iraq than tell their fellow citizens to curtail their lifestyles. Few politicians will undermine their power vis-a-vis local and international competitors by advocating devolution for their country.

Devolution, the second scenario, Heinberg calls "Powerdown: The Path of Self-Limitation, Cooperation and Sharing." Countries would split into regions, agriculture and manufacturing would relocalize and many lifestyle comforts would no longer be available. (Ecotopia [1975] portrays a self-contained, powered-down society; Heinberg presents Cuba as a modern-day case study.)

To power-down successfully, says environmentalist Lester Brown, "the effort required is comparable to the US mobilization during World War II." A renewable energy infrastructure would be just a start. Our debt-based monetary system (which requires constant growth to pay the interest) would have to be replaced by a debt-free currency -- which requires Congressional action. Public financing of campaigns seems like an essential first step.

The first action -- "Waiting for the Magic Elixir," or "Plan Snooze" -- is to ignore the problems and hope that some new technology will save us. Heinberg points out (and it can't be pointed out too often) that hydrogen is an energy delivery mechanism, not an energy source. The problem of energy supply remains.

The second action, "Building Lifeboats," combines survivalism with cultural repository monasteries, as in the Dark Ages (and in Farenheit 451). Groups should form to preserve knowledge that would otherwise be lost in civilizational collapse. Such knowledge includes primitive survival technologies, basic low-energy domestic and agricultural skills and tools, as well as cultural resources for a time when the electrical grid will go down.

In the final chapter, "Our Choice," Heinberg correctly points out that mainstream environmentalists have pulled their punches. If environmentalists advocated for self-limitation, it "would be the easiest PR takedown in history." The Right would pounce and discredit them just like they discredited Jimmy Carter's far less threatening lowered thermostat and cardigan sweater. I conclude, therefore, someone else has bear the bad news.

The tiny voluntary simplicity movement and some religious groups have begun the process. Journalists can help by covering the "lifeboats" out there -- intentional communities, eco-villages, seed-savers and so on -- as pioneers within the context of global warming. Public intellectuals and artists must tell people the unpleasant truths in ways that empower as well as frighten.

I believe that the most important element is to redefine growth and progress as spiritual and communal, rather than material. Americans will not give up our belief that we deserve to have the best and the most, but we might accept a redefinition of what it means to be God's favored children.

Danila Oder is a writer in Los Angeles.

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